Nikkei, Transatlantic Cross-Cultural Cuisine

Originally this post started as an attempt to encompass the cuisine of one culture, but of course research can lead down many new rabbit holes, and this one I just couldn't pass up.There are so many remarkable coastal regions in the world, with a plethora of resulting cuisines, some with quite surprising roots. I am extraordinarily excited to introduce you to one whose history I learned only recently.

Five years ago, I had the great fortune to travel to Peru with some dear friends. Within a week I was thoroughly enamored with the culture and cuisine. At the time I wasn't Pescatarian, and ate my way through whatever I could find (including roasted cuy also known as guinea pig, and alpaca carpaccio). 

My favorites though are ceviche - which could be considered Peru's national dish - and a potato, avocado, seafood combo called causa. Throughout the entirety of my travels, which focused mainly on the southern half of the country, I was ignorant to the century long relationship Peruvian and Japanese cuisine has been developing. Borrowing the word that refers to a Japanese native living outside the country, this unique cuisine is called Nikkei.

Above photo: Yellowtail, orange, ponzu, aji limo and garlic brunoise, compliments of Johnny Prime Steakhouse Reviews

Peru has 2,500km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, which has provided a vital food source since the America's oldest known complex society, the Norte Chico, thrived between 3,000 - 1,500 BC (contemporaneous with the Egyptian pyramids). Proof of clams, mussels, anchovies, and sardines utilized as sustenance have been found at their archeological sites.

Building on centuries of Amerindian dishes, and abrupt Colonial influence, Peruvian cuisine also incorporates Chinese, African, Arab, and Italian sources.Japan's interactions with Peru began in the late 1800s, during the Meiji Period, when the Japanese broke from decades of cultural isolation. Peru is the first South American country to have developed diplomatic relations with Japan, and currently holds the second largest native Japanese population outside of Brazil. By 1936 thousands of immigrants emigrated in hopes of work on plantations. The Japanese government had advertised Peru as a paradise with a mild climate, rich soil, and familiar dietary customs. 

While relations were initially favorable, with the Peruvians appreciating the intense Japanese work ethic, the tables turned during WWII causing discrimination and deportation. Diplomatic relations were reestablished in 1959, with the first Peruvian president of Japanese origin holding office in the early 1990s. 

Throughout the political tumult, these two cuisines that had been separated by the Atlantic for thousands of years, found commonality and unity. The most clear similarity between the two is their reliance on seafood, a prime example being sushi and ceviche. Though it was the strict fineness of the Japanese that began to refine Peruvian fish handling methods.  And thus, Nikkei, most often the use of Peruvian ingredients and technique developed with a Japanese perspective, arose.

 Above photo: Mixed octopus ceviche with jalapenos, lime, and cilantro, found on Pinterest

Using the word fusion should be avoided, due to its grounding in the diaspora that brought Japanese families to the shores of Peru centuries ago. Mina Newman, a Peruvian-American co-Executive Chef at the Nikkei restaurant Sen Sakana puts it beautifully, "It's not a fad. This is their life. This is their culture." This is a cuisine of symbiosis: miso, ginger, soy, and wasabi find balance among aji (yellow pepper), Andes potato (of which there are thousands of varieties), and corn. Now popular ingredients at any sushi bar, eel, scallops, mussels and tuna were not largely utilized by the Japanese, even considered undesirable, until they began fishing Peru's bountiful coasts.

A reinvention of sashimi, Tiradito, sliced fish with aji pepper sauce is said to have been made popular in Peru by Japanese chef Toshiro Konishi. The flavor combinations aren't always obvious unless you know the history of the ingredients, which makes it all the more thrilling to enjoy their subtleties. Even ceviche has been touched by Japanese sushi custom. Traditionally in Peru it was marinated for hours, even days, whereas a more contemporary method soaks the fish sometimes only minutes for to acquire a light acidic sear leaving the inside thoroughly raw.

Surprisingly, Nikkei is little known by natives in Japan, as it has mostly disseminated to Europe, the United States and other South American countries. I find this fascinating, considering the Japanese, particularly the younger generation, have thoroughly accepted Americanized sushi - which, despite the fact I work in one of the best sushi bars in Salt Lake City - I find holds far less intrigue and unique flavor play than any Nikkei dish. I can't wait to revisit Peru in the future, with the intention of finding all the best spots to experience this historically steeped but little know culinary wonder.

For those who have any knowledge of Japanese or Peruvian cuisine, you may have been surprised I did not highlight the superstar chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, who opened his first restaurant in Lima in 1978. While I have the utmost respect - and dream of an invite to his home sushi bar - of his skill and menus, he has rejected the term Nekkei to describe his food, due to the use of many different Latin influences outside of Peruvian.