Who has not heard about “Nikkei cuisine”? This has been a big gastronomic boom since the 2010s, where recognized chefs started opening fine dining restaurants with this concept of Japanese-Peruvian food around the world but, do you really know what it is and how it started?
This started over 100 years ago, with the immigration of thousands of Japanese citizens to the new world that, without knowing, were destined to stand out from other cuisines in a very uncertain context for them back then.
What is Nikkei?
Looking at all the migrations the Americas experienced in modern times, the Japanese might be one of the most interesting from the perspective of Peru. These immigrants preserved Japanese values and culture, following the traditions of passing Japanese values from grandparents to parents, and parents to children. With time, Nikkei culture sort of became the image of hard-working, honest and kind people in Latin America.
Generally speaking, Nikkei refers to those of Japanese descent born outside of the Japanese territory. Curiously, the term “Nikkei” is strongly associated with the combination of Peruvian-Japanese culture and especially with everything that relates to food. Nikkei provided to the world’s palates a culinary explosion of flavors, colors and textures of epic proportions never seen before, but before we get deeper into this, let’s discover the origins of Nikkei.
Origins of Nikkei cuisine
The massive Japanese migration started back in 1860 in the pursuit of peace, prosperity and the chance to provide a better future for their children. Japanese immigrants moved to Hawaii to work in sugarcane fields and many of them ended up settling down in the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Peru was the first country in South America to receive Japanese immigrants followed by Brazil, which has the largest community of Japanese descendants outside Japan.
The migration to Peru started back in 1889, when 790 Japanese workers were recruited by the company Miroka, to work in sugarcane fields owned by the British Sugar Company in the South of Lima, near Cañete, where there was a workforce shortage. By 1924, over 18000 Japanese immigrants had arrived in Peru looking for stability and a new life.
Most of the field workers couldn’t adapt to the bad conditions of the work and did not receive what they were initially offered, which made them escape and settle in cities like Trujillo, Arequipa and Lima.
The process of adaptation was quite hard for them as well as for the Chinese immigrants many years before. Because of the rough situation they were in, many of them were unemployed or would take jobs considered as “low category”.
However, they slowly managed to get some economic stability by opening their own businesses like hair salons and stores, where they would import their own products directly from Japan. And that’s specifically when Nikkei cuisine takes off.
The pioneers of Nikkei food
Just as it happened a few decades earlier with Chinese immigrants, some Japanese citizens who settled in Lima took advantage of their culinary skills and survived doing what they knew best. This is how they started opening their own restaurants.
Between 1924 and 1936, restaurants and canteens of Chinese and Italian ownership located in densely populated working-class neighborhood of Lima were bought by Japanese families.
I’m pretty sure at the time they had no idea what they were creating. They didn’t know that from that moment, they were writing the future of Peruvian gastronomy by mixing Japanese and Peruvian flavors and techniques in a way no other culture had done before.
While Japanese cuisine can be summed up to the use of fresh ingredients and highlighting the natural flavors of those ingredients using certain cooking techniques, Peruvian cuisine is mostly known for using many different condiments and stronger flavors.
Characteristics of Japanese gastronomy
Japanese gastronomy is recognized for using fresh products that puts into the spotlight the natural flavors of the ingredients used. The cooking methods used in Japan specifically achieve this goal.
Japanese cooks select very carefully the colors and textures used in their dishes and plating is considered fundamental. They believe that if their guests are visually delighted and get to enjoy the dishes even before they try them, the taste in mouth will be enhanced.
Japanese influence in Peruvian dishes
There are lots of examples we could take to demonstrate the huge influence Japanese culture had on Peruvian cuisine, but the best example is certainly related to ceviche. As in Japan people are used to eating raw fish, in Peru this had the effect of shortening the marinating of fish, which before lasted for several hours and now is almost instant. It’s also worth mentioning another combination, which consists of mixing Japan’ sashimi with Peru’s famous tiger’s milk, creating one of the most emblematic symbol of Peruvian-Japanese culture: tiradito.
Nikkei food is not just a simple Peruvian-Japanese fusion, Nikkei cuisine is a 360 cultural immersion between Japanese immigrants in Peruvian territory, where cooking techniques, traditions and ingredients met each other and followed a common path, determined to conquer the kitchens of the world’s capitals with unique and unmatched flavor.
Nikkei cuisine icons
The first known representatives of Nikkei cuisine are without a doubt those who made that long trip from Japan, leaving their home for going to a faraway place looking for better opportunities and a better life for their families.
But in term of fame and in a more professional aspects, cooks like Minoru Kunigame, Rosita Yimura, Darío Matsufuji, Augusto Kague and Toshiro Konishi together with Humberto Sato, laid the foundation of Nikkei cuisine in Peru.
Minoru Kunigame is the one who first turned things around and made raw meals increasingly popular in Peru. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Toshiro Konishi arrived in Peru in the 70s to open the restaurant Matsuei. The philosophy of Toshiro Konishi was to preserve the main flavors of all ingredients and respect them. On the other hand, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa “Nobu” is probably the most successful chef of this list as he managed to export Nikkei cuisine to the whole world starting in Los Angeles back in 1977. After that he founded the Nobu Group with Robert de Niro and currently own 32 Nobu restaurants in the world, and some hotels in Europe.
All the chef above-mentioned before are of course the pioneers of Nikkei cuisine but Nobu is the one who made this Peruvian-Japanese fusion food so popular outside Peru and opened the gates for all the new Nikkei chefs willing to shared this amazing mix of cultures with the rest of the world.
Some of the most famous contemporary Nikkei chefs are Mitsuharu Tsumura (Maido), Hajime Kasuga (Hanzo Sushi Bar), Diego Oka (Executive chef La Mar by Gaston Acurio), Yaquir Sato (Costanera 700) and Toshi Matsufuji (Al Toke Pez), just to name a few.
The latter stands out a bit from the others as he’s famous for being the owner of what we call in Peru a “Huarique”, a.k.a a relatively modest restaurant in terms of infrastructure and comfort, with prices on the cheaper end, but with incredible food. His cooking philosophy can be witnessed in the Netflix series Street food Latin America, where he explains that his main goal is to follow the Matsufuji Dynasty in his own way, forgetting about fancy and expensive food, to start sharing cheap and delicious meals with locals and tourists in his restaurant located in Surquillo.
In terms of international recognition, in 2013 Ferran Adrià opened Pakta, a Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona together with his partners, including his brother, and one year later it won its first Michelin Star with current Astrid & Gastón chef, Jorge Muñoz.
Ferran Adrià was the head chef of El Bulli a 3-star Michelin restaurant that was located north of Barcelona, near the border with France. Historically, it’s one of the most prestigious restaurant in the world, and it won the “Best restaurant in the world” award 5 years in a row. In 2011, The Spanish chef visited Peru to participate in what used to be the greatest food festival of Latin America Mistura, where he affirmed that he felt like “another ambassador of Peruvian food”. Peruvian cuisine is a mix of different cultures, flavors, colors and traditions unique in the world that keeps evolving. And we are all part of that evolution.
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