Is there a more contentious term than ‘fusion’ in the food world?
It’s attracted ire from those who see it as a dirty word signaling forced marriages between foods that should really be kept separate, and lauded by experimental foodies who see it as fertile ground for new ideas. We can thank fusion for the everything-as-a-burrito trend, the ramen burger and the cronut, but it’s also the reason why anyone ever thought pineapple and egg make good pizza toppings. PSA: they don’t.
Nikkei, though, isn’t your average fusion cuisine. By definition, it’s a Peruvian and Japanese mash up, but the meeting of these two worlds doesn’t produce the vulgar, too-much frankenfood creations that are often associated with fusion. Translating literally into English as “beautiful love child”, Nikkei is exactly that – it takes the most refined elements from Japan and Peru’s strong culinary traditions and melds them into something else entirely. Although it may seem like an unexpected pairing (the best pairings always are), the evolution of Nikkei has had a transformative effect on both Japan and Peru’s respective national cuisines, and the world is taking notice.
“Nikkei isn’t necessarily Peruvian cuisine with Japanese influence, and it’s not Japanese cuisine with Peruvian influence.”
At the as-yet-unopened restaurant Sen Sakana in Manhattan, Mina Newman and Taku Nagai are devising New York City’s first full Nikkei menu. Here, Nikkei pioneers incorporate traditional Peruvian ingredients like quinoa and yucca and treat them with Japanese cooking techniques to great effect. The result is dishes such as causa onigiris, a Peruvian iteration of the much-loved Japanese rice ball, using yellow and purple potato atop seaweed instead of rice.
Limpet ceviche with yellow chilli from Maido Cocina Nekki (via Facebook).
London chef Kurt Zdesar is matching Japanese flavours like yuzu, coriander and chilli with cassava and quinoa at his restaurant Chotto Matte, to achieve dishes like avocado tempura and smoked purple potato, BBQ pork belly with nashi pear salsa, and grilled baby chicken with spicy pomegranate salsa.
Closer to home, Sydneysiders are anticipating the first Nikkei-inspired restaurant in the country, slated for opening September this year at Barangaroo. Headed by Rose Ang (ex-Nobu) the 110-seat restaurant is set to bring a taste of Nikkei to the heart of the city.
While the Nikkei tradition is now entering into mainstream in dining scenes across the world, it’s certainly not a new concept. It originated in the late 19th century, when thousands of Japanese migrants flocked to Peru in search of jobs, gold and nutrient-rich soil for farming, bringing tried-and-tested culinary techniques with them. After their two-year employment contracts ended (borne from a treaty signed between the two nations), many decided to remain in Peru, finding work in the country’s burgeoning hospitality industry and adding Japanese accents to Peruvian staples.
Of course, Peruvians were at first unfamiliar with the tenets of Japanese cooking. The two cuisines are vastly different – Japanese food relies heavily on fish and rice, while Peruvian staples include potatoes, plantain and even guinea pig.
“Years ago, the Peruvians would just throw away things like octopus and eel, not knowing what to do with it,” Mina Newman tells the New York Times. “They were all fed to the dogs.” When the Japanese introduced new ways of using fish and seafood, the Peru’s national dish of ceviche was virtually reinvented.
Peru's national deish, ceviche, took inspiration from Japan's love of seafood.
These days, Peru has the second largest ethnic Japanese population in South America, and the cuisine has come to epitomize a contemporary morphing of the two cultures. According to Mitsuhuru Tsumura (who’s famed Lima Restaurant Maido is ranked 8th in Latin America on World’s 50 Best) it’s much more than fusion; Nikkei has its own personality – totally unique but ultimately harmonious.
“Nikkei isn’t necessarily Peruvian cuisine with Japanese influence, and it’s not Japanese cuisine with Peruvian influence,” Tsumura tells Munchies. “It’s the meeting of these two cuisines.”
The menu at Maido offers a contemporary introduction to the nuanced flavours of Nikkei: “sushi from the earth” re-interprets the time-worn Peruvian staple steak and eggs dish as a nigiri of wagyu skirt topped with a ponzu-injected quail egg. And, no Nikkei menu would be complete without a nod to Peru’s favourite meat – the guinea pig. Maido prepares guinea pig in three different ways, served with creamy yucca.
How Nikkei cuisine continues to evolve in Australia and beyond is yet to be seen, but our eyes are trained firmly to watch this space.
Lead image @maidolima.