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'Nikkei' cuisine gets prime seat at world culinary table

Global diners developing a taste for Japanese immigrant dishes from Peru

Tiradito is the Nikkei adaptation of sashimi, with wasabi replaced by spicy pepper sauce. (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

NEW YORK -- From New York to London to Barcelona, there is growing enthusiasm among diners for "Nikkei" cuisine, a culinary style that has its origins in the late 1800s among Japanese emigrants to Peru.

Like immigrants elsewhere, the Japanese who settled in the South American country had to adapt their traditional dishes by substituting local ingredients for familiar ones. Onigiri, the popular Japanese rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed and typically filled with salmon or pickled plum, evolved into potato causa, and the wasabi normally served with sashimi was replaced with a spicy sauce of lime juice and local aji peppers to create tiradito. The Japanese term Nikkei, which generally refers to people of Japanese descent living in other countries, is used to describe the cuisine that evolved out of this necessity.

The causa <i>onigiri</i> is a Nikkei adaptation of the Japanese triangular rice ball. (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

"Japanese food with a South American twist was something that people really took a shine to," said Luiz Hara, the author of the "Nikkei Cuisine: Japanese Food the South American Way."

Growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with Japanese grandparents, Hara was treated to Nikkei food every day. After moving to England in 1992, he was surprised to learn that no one had heard of the cuisine. After working in investment banking for seven years, Hara became a chef and later opened a supper club, where he prepared the Nikkei dishes on which he grew up for crowds of Londoners.

"It took off really well," Hara said.

New York's Sen Sakana restaurant, which opened in July, showcases the gourmet side of Nikkei cuisine. (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

In recent years, Nikkei cuisine has moved from humble to high profile, and celebrated chefs such as Japanese-Peruvian Mitsuharu Tsumura and Albert Adria, known to many as one of the brothers behind Spain's El Bulli restaurant, have embraced the cuisine's fresh, seafood-focused techniques and ingredients. Sen Sakana, an ambitious New York restaurant that opened in July and took $7 million and nearly three years to develop, is one of the latest attempts to showcase the gourmet side of Nikkei cuisine.

Mina Newman, a chef of Peruvian descent, runs Sen Sakana's kitchen alongside Taku Nagai, who previously worked at Ootoya, a Japan-based chain restaurant serving homestyle food. Newman and Nagai have combined their heritage and experience to provide a new perspective on Nikkei cuisine.

Sen Sakana's onigiri, for example, is made from mashed golden and purple potatoes. It is topped with spicy salmon and a dried seaweed and sesame seasoning called furikake. "We didn't want to just add Peruvian ingredients to Japanese food," said Newman, who won the U.S. television cooking competition "Chopped" in 2009. "We tried to incorporate both traditions."

Chichamorada, a Peruvian purple corn drink, gets a Japanese accent from ginger and yuzu. (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

That means fluffy quinoa is served with king oyster mushrooms and Japanese pickled radish, and chichamorada, a sweet drink made from purple corn, gets a Japanese accent with ginger, lemongrass and yuzu, a citrus fruit. In the oyakodon (a Japanese dish of steamed chicken and egg served over rice), the grains are stained green with cilantro puree. Even the sushi has a Peruvian flair, with garnishes like lemon zest and aji-infused mayonnaise.

Sprawling menu

Sen Sakana's name translates as "a thousand fish" in Japanese. While this is a reference to the multitude of species that dwell along Peru's Pacific coastline, it could just as well apply to the sprawling menu, which ranges from small plates, such as tiradito, to larger dishes like washu skirt steak and chicken nanban (Japanese fried chicken) accompanied by quinoa and aji tartare, all meant to be shared.

On a typical weekday, business clients file into Sen Sakana's expansive Manhattan space, which features soaring ceilings and a sleek, minimalist decor as well as a private dining room and sushi bar, the latter a concession to American diners' expectations of Japanese food. While some online consumer reviews have gushed over Sen Sakana's bold interpretations of Nikkei dishes, others clearly thought they were eating at a conventional sushi restaurant. ("Don't go here if you are looking for a simple sushi lunch," one person commented.)

The universal expectation that Japanese cuisine means sushi puts chefs and restaurateurs, especially in New York, in a difficult position as they seek to fill tables amid soaring rental prices. Sen Sakana -- two to three times the size of a typical Manhattan restaurant -- is consistently busy, but it is rare to find its 180 seats filled. On a recent Friday morning it was possible to make a reservation for the same night, an impossible feat at the city's trendiest new spots.

Nikkei cuisine has been popular in South America for some years, from Tsumura's elegant Maido, in Lima, to the nine restaurants across the continent operated by the Osaka Group.

Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Peruvians of Japanese descent, and their way of cooking has become a global trend. In the U.S. and Europe, the past few years have seen the addition of high-end establishments like Adria's Pakta in Barcelona, Spain, and mid-range restaurants such as Nikkei in Dallas and Chotto Matte, a London-based eatery launched by a former executive at the famed Nobu restaurant that is expanding this year to Miami and Toronto. Asia saw its first Nikkei restaurant in 2015 with Macau's Aji, a collaboration with Tsumura. TokyoLima and El Mercado in Hong Kong followed.

Nikkei cuisine's popularity could be attributed, in part, to the rising profile of Peru on the gastronomic landscape. The country has topped the World Travel Awards' list of leading culinary destinations annually for the last five years, and Virgilio Martinez of Central Restaurante was named the world's best chef by the influential World's 50 Best Restaurants group earlier this year.

While Hara, the author and chef, welcomes the interest around Nikkei cuisine, he hopes that diners will not make the mistake of classifying the Japanese and Peruvian blend as contemporary fusion fare.

"It's important people realize that this is a cuisine that was created out of necessity," he said. "We had to make do with the ingredients we had so that we could eat as we used to back in Japan. It's not just a fad."

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