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Friday 11 September 2015

Nikkei Cuisine – Japanese Food the South American Way

Chef Tsuyoshi Murakami hands me a small plate – in it are two slivers of salmon sashimi, lightly blow-torched, in an amber-coloured sauce. I am sitting at the sushi counter of this elegant Japanese restaurant taking in the muted chatter of diners and the delicious smells around me.

This might have been one of the many fine-dining establishments in Ginza or perhaps Shinjuku in Tokyo, but as I take the first slice of salmon, the flavours of butter, Tahitian lime and soy sauce linger on my tongue. So wonderful, and yet so un-Japanese, for I am at Kinoshita Restaurant in Vila Nova Conceição, one of the swankiest districts in the city of São Paulo, Brazil.

Chef Murakami is one of millions of Japanese men, women and children who, over the last 100 years, have crossed the oceans to Brazil in search of a new life. Today, Kinoshita is regarded as one of the top restaurants in the country.

Chef Tsuyoshi Murakami at Restaurant Kinoshita, São Paulo, Brazil
On June 18 1908, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil after a 7-week journey from Kobe on board the Kasato Maru. Immigration was encouraged to help solve the farming manpower crisis in the Brazilian coffee plantations caused by the abolition of slavery in 1888. Most of these early Japanese immigrants imagined their trip as a temporary endeavour – a way to achieve prosperity before returning to their native country. However, the advent of the Second World War and the demise of Japan resulted in most of them considering Brazil as their permanent home, including my grandparents.

Fast forward 100 years, and today the Japanese community in Brazil is the largest outside Japan, with most people of Japanese descent (known as Nikkei) living in São Paulo. Peru is home to the second largest Nikkei community in South America, where Japanese immigration started 9 years earlier in 1899.

An old family picture in Brazil, 1930s

I was raised by my Japanese grandmother, who unknown to me or anyone else at the time, was a true pioneer of what has lately become the fashionable Nikkei cuisine. This is the cooking of Japanese emigrants who, out of necessity, adapted local ingredients to the cooking techniques of their homeland.  

My grandmother's passport used when she immigrated to Brazil in 1927
Nikkei cooking is an integral part of the culinary heritage of countries like Brazil and Peru, and more recently in the USA and Europe, it has gained popularity due to the influence of chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa. Several Nikkei restaurants opened in London including Chotto Matte and Sushi Samba. In Barcelona, Albert and Ferran Adria from the late El Bulli opened their own Nikkei restaurant Pakta, earning rave reviews.

‘In Peru, Japanese immigrants must have been shocked by the enormous difference between the diets they were so used to and the new products they were consuming. They were forced to adapt in a thousand different ways’, explained chef Mitsuharu Tsumura. We were chatting over one of the signature dishes at his restaurant in the upmarket district of Miraflores in Lima –Maido is currently number 7 on San Pelligrino’s 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America, and is also considered the best of its kind in the city.

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura at Maido Restaurant, Lima, Peru

To many Peruvian Japanese, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Nikkei ceviche is possibly the dish that best conjures up the marriage of these two culinary traditions. He says ‘It has Japanese ponzu and dashi to counter the intensity of the lime and the aji [Peruvian chilli]. Two attitudes meet and complement each other here: serenity and spice’. And indeed they did - it was a delectable and well-judged dish.

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura's Nikkei Cebiche

Japanese Chef Toshiro Konishi, regarded by many as the father of Peruvian Nikkei cuisine, is a national treasure. Arriving in Lima in the 1970s to work alongside Nobu Matsuhisa at Matsuei, Konishi-san fell in love with the Peruvian people and the wonderful native ingredients of the land and sea, never returning to live in Japan.

Chef Toshiro Konishi handing me a plate of tiradito at his restaurant Toshiro's, Lima, Peru

I met him at Toshiro’s in San Isidro, Lima, to talk about Nikkei cuisine and try one of his creations – tiradito. Today, one of the national dishes of Peru, this is the Nikkei answer to another local favourite, ceviche. Tiradito was invented by Chef Konishi who decided to slice the fish thinly, sashimi style rather than cubed, and serve it raw with leche de tigre, not marinated in lime or with red onions and corn. Much as I love a well-made ceviche, Toshiro’s tiradito was truly sensational –lighter, more delicate and the excellent quality of the local Peruvian fish really shone through.

Chef Toshiro Konishi's Tiradito (Peruvian-Nikkei Sashimi)

Back in São Paulo, at Momotaro restaurant, third generation Japanese descendent chef Adriano Kanashiro served me his most popular Nikkei dish – a sushi of tuna, foie gras and figs that is one of the finest I have tasted. Perhaps the most avant-garde of Nikkei chefs in Brazil, Kanashiro explores the fruits of the Amazon for culinary inspiration.

Japanese immigration, although in smaller numbers, still takes place in South America. In São Paulo, I was charmed to meet chef Shin Koike at his restaurant Sakagura A1 and learnt of his arrival in the country as early as 20 years ago. “Brazil is my adopted home; I embraced its culture, people and food wholeheartedly” he said. His kids were born there and as their parents, are truly integrated in Brazilian society – “I will never live in Japan again” he concluded.

Chef Shin Koike at Sakagura A1 Restaurant, São Paulo, Brazil

We shared a splendid Nikkei meal at Sakagura A1 ending it on a high note with his Rapadura ice cream with Cachaça and coffee jelly for dessert. Here, Chef Koike pays homage to two of the most popular of Brazilian flavours. Rapadura is Brazilian unrefined sugar cane in solid form, much akin to his native kokutō (Japanese muscovado sugar) it was the perfect base for his Nikkei creation together with Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil, enjoyed in many Caipirinhas across that nation and beyond.

My grandmother was no Nobu, but she used what she could find in Brazil to create the most delicious Nikkei dishes. I was lucky enough to grow up in her house eating this style of cooking, and am pleased to see it reaching out beyond South America. Until now, Brazil and Peru were perhaps the most unlikely places you would visit for top-quality Japanese food. But if you would like to try Nikkei cooking, Japanese food the South American way, head down to São Paulo or Lima and check out some of these dazzling restaurants for yourself.

A day in São Paulo zoo with my o-baachan (grandmother)

Alternatively, why not experiment cooking Nikkei dishes at your own home? My cookbook ‘Nikkei Cuisine – Japanese Food the South American Way’ will be published on the 22nd October 2015, it can be pre-ordered on Amazon here - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nikkei-Cuisine-Japanese-South-American/dp/1910254207


  1. What an interesting post - I had no idea about the origins of Nikkei cuisine! I can't wait to try your food and best of luck with your cookbook! Lots of love, Andrea xxx

    Andrea's Passions

  2. SPICY TUNA HOSOMAKI is one of my favorite among the Japanese dishes. Great to see ur post and hope many recipes will be presented in the future!


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