In the case of culinary fusion, an eclectic ensemble of cuisines can combine to form something altogether new. There is no loftier example hitting plates today than that of Nikkei — a thoughtful approximation of Peruvian and Japanese sensibilities made popular in the stylish restaurants of Lima.
While the modern trend traces its origins to Peru’s capital city, it hasn’t taken long for it to reverberate around the globe. As a relatively recent cultural export, it’s possible to follow some of the faces that have helped propel the cuisine from its birthplace onto modernized menus here in the States.
The spiritual connection between Japan and Peru, countries separated by thousands of miles of ocean, isn’t immediately obvious. But in the late 1800s the promise of secured work contracts convinced thousands of Japanese laborers to make the perilous journey across the Pacific. Upon completion of their contractual obligations, many of the immigrants opted to set up a more lasting residence in Peru, but had to find a way to ingratiate themselves to the natives.
Food proved to be a way into their hearts. The Japanese opened up a wave of new eateries, subtly overlaying their own techniques upon the local fare — working fish and octopus into dishes that were traditionally meat-based, and surreptitiously introducing raw and citrus-cured seafoods into the mix. This was the birth of Nikkei.
Nearly a century later, chef Nobu Matsuhisa arrived in Peru and tied these culinary traditions tighter still. He hardly invented the style, but Matsuhisa did introduce the marriage to a global stage, with what has grown into a multi-national restaurant empire. Although his eateries are roundly categorized as Japanese, even a cursory glance at the menu reveals ceviches, tiraditos (Peruvian crudo), and other raw fish dishes spiked with cilantro and jalapeño. Ever since the opening of his original eponymous outpost in Beverly Hills 30 years ago, Matsuhisa has actually been making the States a place for Nikkei to thrive.
If Nobu is Japanese with a little Peruvian flair, Lima’s Mitsuharu Tsumura is championing the inverse. “Nikkei cuisine, for us, is Peru,” explains the chef and owner of Maido, one of the country’s premiere dining establishments. “It’s Peruvian cuisine with a little bit of Japanese techniques and Japanese ingredients.” Although the traditions go back more than 100 years, Tsumura attaches its newfangled trendiness to a recent rise in Peru’s stature. “Nikkei cuisine started developing worldwide approximately eight years ago,” he observes. “And that was together with the Peruvian gastronomic boom around the world.”
Sushi bar notwithstanding, a visit to Maido is a distinctly South American cultural excursion. From Andean-inspired plates and cutlery to exotic flora sourced from the very same remote mountain regions, a tasting menu here highlights a uniquely Peruvian state of being.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be in Peru to experience it. A cadre of chefs originating in this part of the world have made a slow slog northward.
On the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica, Fernando Torres plates wondrous examples at La Isabela, an inviting cavern at the foot of the Marriott Hotel’s hacienda-style courtyard. He arranges housemade yuzu and ponzu-inflected sauces around tunas and snappers crusted in quinoa, uniting flavors from both sides of the Pacific for a rendezvous in the heart of Central America.
North of the border, no Peruvian chef is making waves quite like Ricardo Zarate, a chef whose personality is as outsized as his colorful cuisine. “It is my belief that the biggest influence of Japanese is with ceviche,” he contends. “But when they came to Peru, they tried to introduce raw fish and sushi, and the Peruvians didn’t like it. So they had to hide it into the cooking. They were embarrassed.”
The Japanese started soaking raw seafood in citrusy sauces, such as Leche de Tigre, giving it the texture and taste of something cooked. Many Peruvians who now swear by Japanese-influenced ceviches will contend they don’t eat raw fish, unaware it is in fact a staple of their diet. Even to this day, Zarate explains with a laugh, many Peruvians mockingly refer to the nori surrounding sushi as ‘electric tape.’
At his hit West Hollywood kitchen, Rosaliné, Zarate hardly has to fool Angelenos into eating his seafood-focused fare. He brings all sorts of vibrant, sashimi grade seafood to the table, heightened further by the addition of South American spices. The chef revels at the growing popularity of his native fare, actively taking part in its advocacy. “I promote Peruvian cuisine for my own benefit,” he admits. “I want more Peruvian restaurants here, because it makes it easier to buy the ingredients. They’re not going to bring this one chili all the way from the Amazon if it’s only me that’s using it.”
Zarate is getting his wish, as Peruvian restaurants are popping up all over the country. In 2017 in New York, Sen Sakana debuted as one of the city’s first restaurants dedicated exclusively to Nikkei. Rather than directing the fusion solely at the food, however, the Midtown newcomer is pushing Nikkei to the bar. Beverage Director Zachary Gross crafts a series of cocktails showcasing the convergence of spirits unique to Japan and Peru. In his Down by the Sea, for example, sake is mixed with Pisco and a seaweed-infused vermouth for an umamified evolution of the martini. You don’t just eat your Nikkei anymore. You drink it, too.
Although its trail stretches back over a century, Nikkei has only recently cemented its status at the forefront of modern cuisine. Never before have gourmands enjoyed better, easier access to its unique splendor — especially here in the States. You can almost watch it evolve in real time. In an era of increasing nationalism, Nikkei is more than just a tasty meal; it’s a defiant reminder of just how harmonious it can be when cultures coalesce. “It’s like a balance between the respect of the product and the simplicity of Japan’s cuisine with the strong flavors of Peru,” supposes Tsumara. “When you get them together, you get a beautiful balance of flavors. And the world, I think, likes this balance.”
*This article was originally published in October, 2017.