Por: Josefina Barrón
Fotos: Pocho Cáceres, Renzo Giraldo e Inés Menacho
A new cuisine is emerging in Perú; it is the result of the union of two great worlds: Japan and Perú. Zen and spices conjure sparks of flavors that beguile unsuspecting guests. The Japanese arrived in our country and fell in love with the Peruvian sea; they were charmed by the taste of our fish and the exuberance of our seafood. This process took time, like all good things, due to the peculiar diversity of the soil and products in Perú. A touch of miso and a hint of shoyu, Peruvian irreverence, and Japanese solemnity fused into a fine dish.
This is the story we wanted to share in the book. Mitsuharu Tsumura, “Micha,” as he is known to friends, is one of the most renowned chefs in Perú. I am a writer, chronicler of the customs and traditions of my land, and passionate diner. We researched the history of Nikkei cuisine, beginning with the very first Japanese immigrants who came here to work, more than a century ago, in the sugar cane farms on the coast. They reinvented the way we ate and cooked and made us re-evaluate the the fruits from the sea and the land with which we are naturally blessed.
How can we synthesize and re-launch traditional Peruvian cuisine with the Nikkei code of delicate flavors, creating something that takes us back to the native land while placing us on the cutting edge? We had to embrace adventure, because life is movement and potential; nothing and no one is stationary or absolute. We are constantly flowing, and so are the Earth, the tides, bacteria, light, blood, color, and seeds. Cuisines, like genealogical trees, are continually redefined, enriching their identities with impassioned exchanges of the cultures, upon which the history of civilization has been based, from the moment men exchanged the first sounds, products, ideas, and customs.
These two very different cuisines joined to form exactly the kind of unique product that pleases the epicurean who is always in search of new flavors. uuOn the stove, dialogue is encouraged, elements are confronted, opposites attract. Perhaps the very fact of their mutual differences creates the dynamics and the surprise that every epicurean hunts for in new flavors. In Nikkei, neither culture lost its distinct temperament or essence in the fusion. The dashi —unseasoned Japanese soup stock made with fermented bonito and kelp—balanced the intensity of the Peruvian seasoning. The chili pepper, in its audacity, added sharpness to the calm of Japanese flavors. Japan introduced unsalted white rice without garlic, as a true companion to Peruvians’ red-blooded natures; this creates a complement, more of a necessity than an accessory. Peruvians, especially those from the coast, have been eating rice since the Chinese first reached our land.
Nikkei emerged when a middle ground was found. “The chili pepper and shoyu were made for each other,” Micha confesses. “Hot miso was born, and adding Peruvian herbs and spices to dashi, we came up with a reinforced dashi that the Japanese would refuse to drink, yet Peruvians adore.”
The same goes for shoyu and lemon. When the first Nikkei chefs introduced the idea of preparing cebiche with shoyu, it occurred to them to add just few drops of shoyu to the fish as accompaniment to the lemon that was already there, and that was the birth of our Nikkei cuisine. Tiradito (fish slices) later conquered Peruvian palates. Academics say it is traditionally from the north because Peruvian fishermen cut and ate it that way. In Japan, sashimi is served with shoyu and fresh wasabi, freshly grated, but the lemon and Peruvian chili pepper provided this particularly tasty fish of the Peruvian seas with a new path. More highly seasoned than sashimi and lighter than cebiche, it was the foundation of our Nikkei cuisine.
The acebichado arrived to take the world by storm. The story goes that this Peruvian maki was created in Matsuei. It pleased the palates of customers who were accustomed to the California roll. At first the sauce was not creamy; it contained avocado and breaded oyster. When Javier Matsufuji left Matsuei and opened Edo, he reinvented maki. It was made with tuna instead of white fish and king shrimp supplanted the oyster. The cebiche sauce was thickened with mayonnaise, and the maki was crowned with green onions, china, and shichimi —the red-hot Japanese powder. The acebichado has become one of the most emblematic makis of Peruvian Nikkei cuisine and the dish “de rigueur” for Peruvians and visitors. It is never the same; each chef creates a unique variation of maki acebichado.
Recovery and Healing
When I was little we didn´t know about sushi. Japanese cuisine was not part of our daily life. When we ate out we had pizza, pasta, our traditional food and, a few years later, that great ambassador of Peruvian food: the cebiche. During the first years of my youth, fish was still marinated in lemon. Those were the languishing heartbeats of 70´s.
The tiradito had yet to appear on cebicheria menus. My parents did not have the good fortune of enjoying it as we did in the 80´s. The boom in sushi bars has been much more recent and the presence of Japanese immigrants is not necessarily the cause of this vital explosion of new flavors; instead, it is related to the fact that the great Nobu, and no less brilliant Toshiro, had been, for some time, creating a new culinary concept. Both Japanese cooks were seduced, wrapped up, and captivated by Peruvian gastronomy, its daring food, colorful peppers, the as yet undiscovered fruits of the Amazon, the sea, and the Andes, all of which found their place in a new a niche in contemporary cuisine.
Our Nikkei cuisine grows stronger as Peruvian cuisine booms, but it is not unique to Perú. A new appreciation for world cuisines is an existential, sensorial, social, and cultural phenomenon brought on by globalization´s standardization of regional expressions. The United States has led the promotion of Japanese cuisine around the world. The California roll won over the high-end palates of Lima society with its avocado and the strange presence of cream cheese, which Toshiro could not accept. At the same time as the sushi trend was booming in Lima, the rest of the country was experiencing its own own new and powerful phenomenon. We were forging a new cuisine: lomos saltados (sautéed strips of beef tenderloin) with hints of shoyu, raw fish sans lemon, cebiche topped with kelp, tiraditos and—thanks to Rosita Yimura, the woman with magic hands—octopus in olives; the signature dish that quickly became our national pride.
How did we finally give the pejesapo (steamed fish) a chance? Why do we now accompany the everyday black olive with slices of octopus? Today it feels natural to be served a plate of native potatoes, purple corn chips, paiche (fresh water fish) crowned with frayed threads of chonta (palm shoots), nuts of the Bahuaja Sonene park, and camu camu (small fruit of the Amazonia related to the rum berry), but it wasn’t easy for this evolution to happen. Peruvians have only recently overcome a painful existential crisis. It took time to once again look within and feel pride in our country. We were stunned; impoverished. We had lived in terror for twenty years and prior to that, we had gone through successive governments, which enacted badly conducted agricultural reform that left our fields devastated. Perú was Lima. The food has always been a reflection of the Peruvian soul, but it hasn’t always been what it is today; I must say, however that we never lost the exuberance of flavors and textures of our national cuisine. But alas, coca leaf, kiwicha, masua, oca, and quinoa (Andean grains and roots, highly regarded for their vitamin contents) were not in our vocabulary. During the 80´s Perú was a dead-end street —more of a state of despondency than a proudly held nationality.
The recovery of national pride was a gradual process, like the healing of a deep wound. Gastronomy, with its democratic, timeless, original, and universal nature, brought us back to the love of our country. We cultivated, step by step, the sense that we, Peruvians, had something valuable and unique. Without incendiary speeches or pamphlets, Perú, little by little, conquers the world because it conquered itself. The 90´s and the early 21st century were times of liveliness and reengaging with our fantastic nature and our vast culture.
The dramatic national recovery gave the Nikkei chef —Peruvian by birth and flavor, and also Japanese— wings with which to fly. Perú accepted the complex duality, and the Japanese became creole because, as my friend Ignacio Medina, a gastronomy critic says, “There is something the in the nature of Peruvian cuisine: culinary vampirism. The ability to absorb everything in its surroundings, swallow it, digest it, and regurgitate into something else: something new.” There is no doubting the permanent cultural exchange, the blending, the renovated identity, cuisine joyfully brings about. Perhaps the Nikkei will evolve like the marinera (dance traditional of Peruvian coast); we create our own dance, our own costumes, our own music, departing indeed, from the past, but marking the birth of a new and powerful language.