Peruvian chef Mitsuharu Tsumara is the face of Nikkei cuisine in Peru today. Nikkei is a word that describe both Japanese emigrants and their descendants. But in Peru, it is considered to be the blend of Peruvian and Japanese cuisines invented by the migrants who arrived in Peru many years back. Nikkei cuisine, like Peruvian cuisine today, is very much in vogue everywhere in the world even though it started off as food that was cooked in homes of Japanese migrants many years ago.
Tsumara, also known as Micha, is today the heir of a legacy that has been built over the years and is slowly becoming mainstream not only in Peru but also outside.
He is the chef of the highly acclaimed Nikkei restaurant Maido in Lima. Micha owes a lot of his success to his father. He guided him towards turning his passion for food into ‘studying about it’. When Micha wanted to open a restaurant that would serve sushi in Peru, his father asked him a simple question: “How are you going to prepare sushi if you have never been to Japan?” Despite having Japanese roots, Japan proved to be not only a cultural shock but also a working shock for Micha. But it is here that he learnt the hard lessons which would make him one of Peru’s top chefs and also one of the best in the world.
“Nikkei is a revolution. I don’t know of any other country in the world that has adopted a foreign cuisine like Japanese and blended it together with its own cuisine. I don’t like to use the word fusion because sometimes fusion is confusion,” Micha told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview at Chef Sache. “Nikkei cuisine is a blend, a perfect blend between Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. Very rarely has a cuisine blended so seamlessly.”
“I believe that this blend of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine evolved naturally. The immigrants that came to Peru more than a 100 years ago had to eat something similar to what they ate in Japan. The good thing about Peru is that there is amazing fish and seafood like in Japan and the Japanese love this. They found all this incredible variety of produce from the sea. But they also found varieties of chillies and spices and they started building their own cuisine because they could not find certain ingredients they were used to in Japan, 60 to 70 years ago.”
Tsumara is at the forefront of the Nikkei revolution taking place in Peru right now. A Peruvian Nikkei from Lima, he always remembers cuisine forming an important part of his life.
The Peruvian chef says that Nikkei started as home cooking. “It is what grandmothers used to cook, it is what my grandmother cooked. This is how we were raised. 10 years ago everything was on standby. There was Nikkei, there was Peruvian but now I believe that Nikkei is part of Peruvian cuisine. If you analyse the cuisine of Peru, I like to describe it as an ocean and there are many rivers that reach the ocean. One of these rivers is Nikkei cuisine.
Thanks to chefs like Virgilio Martinez, Gaston Acurio and Tsumara, Peruvian (and Nikkei) cuisine has become a household name among foodies in the past few years. But this was not always the case. Modern Peruvian cuisine is less than 10 years old.
“To have people in Europe, the United States and elsewhere interested in Peru is one of our goals. We have been working on this for the past 8 to 10 years,” Tsumara said. “In Peru we did not believe in what we did, we did not believe in Peruvian cuisine. We had to investigate, analyse and study our cuisine. For hundreds and thousands of years there was culture and ingredients. But, we had to travel across the Amazon and the Andes and discover products that were used by natives but not found in the major cities.”
The Peruvian chef says the main strength of Peruvian cuisine is its biodiversity – there is a lot of produce there which you cannot find anywhere else in the world. There are over 3,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru.
But what led to this revival, I asked Tsumara when I met him at Chef Sache in Cologne. “First, I believe that we did not believe in Peruvian cuisine. We were looking more at what other countries were doing. Luckily, we realised there was a lot of potential in Peru. We have a saying in Peru about a homeless man who sits on a golden bench. We had all the richness of the ingredients, all the techniques and the external influences from Japan, China, Spain, Italy and Africa. All these have influenced Peruvian cuisine. Our cuisine is built around this biodiversity and these influences.’
He believes the Mistura food festival is one of the other reasons why Peruvian cuisine became famous in the world. “In Mistura, we brought everything in one place. This captured the attention of chefs like Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Albert Adria, Joan Roca, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Alain Ducasse. These chefs came to Peru, went to the Amazon, travelled to Machu Picchu. They realised the beauty and the richness of the soil of Peru and it products. Many took ingredients from Peru to analyse them in their kitchens. This led to the press also coming to Peru to learn about what was going on.”
Tsumara says Peruvian food has always been good. “It might not have been very beautiful but it was always tasty. Some rice and stew on the side was enough but once you ate it you realised that there was an explosion of flavours. Over the past years, we have had to work on presentation, technique. Every cuisine in the world evolves. What is avant-garde right now will one day be traditional,” he says.
Peruvian cuisine is hard rock, Japanese is classical music
Tsumara believes you cannot blend every cuisine in the world. “There are cuisines that just don’t go well together. Peruvian cuisine is like hard rock. It is strong in flavours, bold and spicy. Japanese cuisine is more classical music with light and natural flavours. What Nikkei has done is find the perfect balance. In the case of sushi, all you need is rice, fish and soy sauce. With Nikkei, you do not only have fish, rice and soy sauce but you also add lime, chillies and spices to the soy sauce to give it a kick. When you add soy sauce to a ceviche you are lowering the heat and creating a nice balance. Nikkei is about finding this balance.”
He tells Food and Wine Gazette that the use of chillies and soy sauce is not only native to Peru. “You go to China, Singapore, Korea and the mix of chillies and soy sauce is very common and works well there. But all the chillies in the world have come from Peru and Bolivia. They have travelled all over the world like potatoes.”
This blend of chilli and soy sauce is the DNA of Nikkei cuisine just like olive oil for Spanish or Italian cuisine.
We are living in a transitional period
Tsumara believes that right now we are living in a transitional period. “10 years ago, being a chef was not cool. But now, everyone want to be a chef. That is also a problem because many people want to be a chef because of what they see in magazines, TV and not because they are passionate about food. Chefs that became chefs 10, 15 or 20 years ago had everything against them. Their parents did not want them to become chefs. Society did not appreciate chefs.”
He also believes that there is too much of a fight between traditional cooking against creative or avant-garde cooking. “I believe that we will go back to our roots. The new techniques we use today will still be used but in the medium term we will more conscious of the ingredients we use, sustainability, from where the produce came. We will be working with producers and using organic food. Chefs will know where the meat came from. We will be more socially conscious,” he says.
The future for chefs will still be the same. “We will still need to communicate but also the media needs to do its part to communicate. Our work is like paintings. You do not want everyone to paint the same way. You need to recognise a style is from a particular artist. A chef has to build his or her own style. As long as we don’t copy paste, copy paste, we will be on the right track,” he tells me.
Tsumara says that while developing new techniques is important, what is essential is the taste. “Sometimes we forgot that the most important thing is not design or plating but what you put in your mouth finally gives you pleasure. Sometimes we want to impress when we make a dish, using many techniques, making it really stunning on the plate but when you eat it, you do not get the explosion of flavours like you had in the past.”
“Nikkei has given balance and I think that in future, the focus will not be on new things but rather on finding more balance. Being avant-garde is good but you should never forget the basics of cooking.”
Tsumara is an avant-garde chef but he knows that without tradition and history there cannot be creativity in the kitchen. “I tell my cooks that that tradition are the foundations of cuisine. If you want to cook fried rice, you need to first learn how to cook the rice. Some people know how to make fried rice but they don’t know how to make rice because it is already done. Some people know how to roll sushi but they don’t know how to make sushi rice. Some people can make a pasta with bottarga but they don’t know how to make pasta.”
It is evident that he has learnt the lessons from his father who sent him to Japan to discover not only how to make sushi but also the work ethic there. “Let’s say you want to create your own version of a simple burger. You want to be creative and make something that blows your mind. To do this you need to travel. You need to go and find where the best burger is made and see what it tastes like. It is only beginning from this that you can really think of trying to do something. If you haven’t gone through the whole process, you will never be creative. You cannot just skip steps and try to make something different because it will not work.”
So what is the future of Nikkei cuisine, I ask Tsumara. “A few years ago, while Nikkei existed, Peruvians would say they were going to eat either Peruvian or Japanese food. When they went to eat Japanese, they were not really eating Japanese food but rather Nikkei. My father would not go to a ‘Japanese’ restaurant because he would say this was not Japanese. We started calling this cuisine Nikkei 10 years ago.”
What Tsumara has done is take this unique cuisine forward. “I think that Nikkei cuisine will be part of every Peruvian restaurant in 10 years time. Nikkei will be mainstream and you will not need to open a restaurant that serves only Nikkei. Both Gaston and Virgilio are already doing this in their restaurants outside Peru.”
Is Tsumara planning to follow Virgilio Martinez and Gaston Acurio in opening restaurants in Europe? “I would love to but the focus for the time being is Asia and Latin America. My philosophy is to take things step by step. I am working on a number of projects in Macau, Columbia and Chile for the time being,” he says.