How Japanese Immigrants Shaped This Peruvian Food

Nikkei cuisine is woven through Peruvian standards from jalea to ceviche. And don't you dare call it fusion.

Nikkei Ceviche
Photo: Courtesy of Sen Sakana

At Sen Sakana, a buzzy restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Japanese-Peruvian cuisine is on the menu. In a lofty multi-level space, diners can sample genre-bending menu items like ceviche with shrimp dashi and Japanese curry-filled empanadas. A sushi chef prepares chirashi con choclo (a dish of fish and large Peruvian corn) behind the limited seating sushi bar, slinging cocktails mixed with pisco or topped with katsuobushi. To the untrained eye (and perhaps some Midtown lunch-goers), it all could add up to the latest, trendiest fusion concept to hit New York City. In reality though, the wide-reaching menu is grounded in centuries of culinary history.

You may be vaguely aware of the Japanese diaspora in Latin America. But not many are familiar with the resulting cuisine — called Nikkei, the Japanese word for emigrants and their descendants — which is extremely popular far beyond the small population (less than 1%) of Japanese-Peruvians.

Bonito Cocktail
Courtesy of Sen Sakana

The story is nothing new: As long as there have been diasporas, chefs and home cooks have had to feed their communities in new places. And when people make old recipes with foreign and unfamiliar ingredients, it outlines rich new cuisines that can begin to take shape. Take, for example, chifa — the food born from indentured Cantonese workers who arrived in large waves in 19th-century Peru. If you've had Peruvian food, chances are you've encountered the chifa tradition. Lomo saltado, the ubiquitous, vinegar-y stir-fry of beef, vegetables, and french fries, is firmly grounded in Chinese technique — its sturdy base of potatoes and rice a perfect metaphor for a broader marriage of old and new-world ingredients.

Though there are many more Peruvians of Chinese descent than Japanese, Nikkei is also an established part of Peru's eating culture. And Sen Sakana executive chef Mina Newman, a Peruvian-American who earned her stripes in New York under the likes of Drew Nieporent, wants people to know. "People say, 'Oh, it's a fusion,'" she laments. "It's not a fusion. The Japanese families that went to Peru centuries ago, the people born there — they consider themselves Peruvian." For her, the fusion label trivializes the culture of the Japanese diaspora and their contribution to Peruvian food: "It's not a fad. This is their life. This is their culture." And at Sen Sakana, she helps lead a team of Japanese and Peruvian cooks to bring the spirit of Nikkei food into the spotlight.

A confluence of economic and social factors in the late 19th century precipitated the Japanese diaspora to the Americas, and Peru was sometimes advertised as a paradise by Japan's Meiji government. It wasn't. Recently independent Peru was still transitioning out of an economy that relied on slavery, and the system of indentured agricultural labor that replaced it was often brutal. In cities, quickly solidifying racialized divisions of labor meant Japanese immigrants worked menial or labor-intensive jobs while ghettoized in undesirable neighborhoods.

Legal and social discrimination inhibited upward mobility, political participation, and paths to citizenship for those of Japanese heritage. But within a generation the Japanese-Peruvian community was embedded in the economic and social fabric of the nation, with high rates of small business ownership and cultural figures like poet José Watanabe and painter Venancio Shinki. And in their kitchens, of course, they were cooking up what would become undercurrent of Peruvian food everywhere, soon breaking into the mainstream of urban restaurant culture.

Growing up in a Peruvian household in New York, Newman wasn't familiar with the Japanese diaspora in her family's country. It wasn't until she was older that, during summers spent in Peru, she saw Asian-Americans speaking Spanish in the streets of Lima. When she learned more about Nikkei food, she says, "I was beside myself. I just didn't know." She hopes Sen Sakana will provide a necessary counterpoint to the explosion of criollo-style Peruvian restaurants in the States. "Peruvian food is so popular," she says, "but it's so much more than ceviche."

For the project, she's enlisted the help of Chef Taku Nagai, who previously helmed the kitchen at Ootoya (where she was a regular). "I used to go all the time," she says. "I loved how they prepared the rice there. We became friends." Nagai adds: "She would always order sake, so I eventually came to know her as the 'good sake customer.'" When she told him her plans to open a Nikkei spot in New York, Nagai was excited to branch out from his strictly Japanese training. "Of course, I couldn't say no," he recalls.

Mina and Yaku
Courtesy of Sen Sakana

So what is Nikkei food? The lines can be blurry; as Newman explains, much of what we think of as Peruvian food has been touched and, occasionally, improved by Japanese cooking. Take ceviche; though it's tempting to imagine Japanese immigrants being welcomed to Peru with a familiar-looking fish dish, Newman argues that modern ceviche actually exists because of them. "In Peru, they used to cook seafood until it was done, done, done," she says. "They used to cook ceviche for hours."

In fact, Newman says that most of Peru's iconic fish dishes were actually made popular by Japanese cooks. Tiradito, the dish of raw sliced fish with aji pepper sauce, is considered a reinterpreted sashimi. Newman says some ingredients that are now staples were popularized by Nikkei cooks, noting that, in her experience, "people never used to use octopus or eel." The name Sen Sakana, which translates to "one thousand fishes," is meant to illustrate the seafood bounty in the Peruvian ocean. "It's because of the Japanese influence that we've learned to handle the fish better," she states, bluntly.

Some Nikkei-style fare is now ubiquitous, but most dishes are distinct from both typical criollo home cooking and strictly Japanese cuisine; Nagai says the food is "not at all like a traditional Japanese or Peruvian menu." Broadly, Nikkei cuisine uses Peruvian ingredients prepared through a Japanese lens. Newman points out other notable dishes like pulpo al olivo (octopus with black olive sauce), tempura-style jalea seafood, escabeche (whole fried fish), and the increasing use of local bonito and scallops — which people are now starting to eat raw in all their sweet juiciness, sashimi-style.

In Peru, Nikkei restaurants run the gamut from neighborhood spots serving comfort foods like yaki soba saltado ("like Japanese-style lo mein," says Newman), to some of the country's best restaurants. Gems of Nikkei fine dining include Osaka Cocina Nikkei, with locations throughout Latin America; Toshi, whose founding chef Toshiro Konishi moved to Lima from Tokyo in the 1970s; and Maido, currently coming in at number 11 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Maido chef-owner Mitsuharu "Micha" Tsumura, born in Lima, recently wrote a book entitled Nikkei es Perú.

Curiously, while Peruvians are increasingly celebrating the influence of the Japanese diaspora, Nagai notes that most people in Japan have no idea. "Unfortunately, the Japanese migration to Peru is not commonly known in Japan," he says. "And as far as Nikkei cuisine, most people in Japan don't know it exists — not even the chefs." But the word seems to be slowly trickling over, with some notable Japanese chefs spending time in Peru and even setting up shop. "Few people know that Nobu's first country out of the gate was Peru," says Newman — he spent a few years at El Matsuei in Lima before heading to the United States. "When I was a chef at Layla, I would go to Peru and bring back chiles for him."

Causa Onigiri
Evan Sung

Now at the helm of her own kitchen, Newman is working with Nagai to consistently explore the boundaries of Nikkei food. The pair is continuing to experiment with what it looks like to cook Japanese food through a Peruvian lens (and vice versa) — updating Nikkei classics as they go. Their Nikkei Ceviche, which Nagai says "many restaurants serve as tuna in a soy-based sauce," becomes salmon marinated in yuzu-inflected leche de tigre. They also challenge themselves to make Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients, like the quinoa crust that coats their reinterpreted Chicken Nanban. Peruvian touches can be found hidden in the sushi service, from rolls dotted with sweet potato sauce to fish marinated in chica de jora. "The tonkatsu is probably the closest to 100% traditional Japanese," says Newman, but even that is plated with potato salad and salsa criolla. "Every single dish here, we've worked on together," she says. "It's an equal exchange."

So the project of Nikkei food is alive and well at Sen Sakana and in markets, kitchens, and restaurants across Peru. "The foundation of Peruvian food is still continuously evolving," says Newman. She hopes, through her cooking, to deepen her guests' understanding of what Peruvian cuisine can be. Nikkei food can also help us trace what Peruvian food has been, and the politics, ingredients, and movements of the people that have shaped it.

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