The food in Peru is as varied as the country’s terrain, a combination of mountains, rainforests, and coasts. This biodiversity, coupled with influences from European colonizers, enslaved Africans, and Asian migrants, means that Peruvian food encompasses a range of flavors. But for the past few years, it seems one cuisine from this confluence of groups has grabbed headlines in the states more than any other: Nikkei, the Peruvian style of cooking often billed as Japanese-Peruvian “fusion.”
In America, “fusion” may call to mind a genre of dilettantish restaurant most popular in the mid-’00s. But to hear Nikkei chefs tell it, Nikkei is not so much a fusion in the 21st-century meaning of the word, but a distinct cultural cuisine, developed over generations. “Nikkei” is the word for the descendants of Japanese immigrants living around the world. In Peru, they began arriving in earnest at the turn of the 20th century to work on plantations, according to Ayumi Takenaka, a sociologist teaching at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University currently writing a book on the history of the Japanese diaspora.
Today, there are roughly 90,000 Nikkei people living in Peru, although estimates vary. It’s a number dwarfed by the population of Peruvians with Chinese ancestry (over 1 million), and the Nikkei population is also much larger in other countries: in Brazil, 1.5 million people have Japanese ancestry. But somewhere along the way, “Nikkei” began to refer to the food that grew out of the Japanese presence in Peru.
Takenaka surmises it has something to do with the spread of Peruvian food worldwide. “There’s a lot of gastro-politics going on in Peru,” she says. “The Peruvian government and elite chefs are behind this, using the food as a tool of diplomacy.” Peru has successfully built up a reputation for world class fine dining, and Nikkei, a cuisine founded on technique, fits into this space. Peru’s high-end restaurants are well represented on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Just last year, Lima Nikkei restaurant Maido broke into the top 10, after debuting at No. 44 in 2015.
Takenaka also points to Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef responsible for Nobu, what many consider to be the world’s most successful fine dining chain restaurant, as an ambassador for Nikkei cuisine. Matsuhisa opened his first restaurant in Lima, Peru in 1973, and has since opened restaurants and hotels in more than 30 cities across five continents. But in America, his food is billed as Japanese. “Labels shift depending on the context,” Takenaka says.
Nikkei food is Peruvian ingredients — tropical fish, quinoa, aji amarillo peppers — molded by Japanese techniques. Multiple chefs cite the modern preparation for ceviche as particularly indicative of the Nikkei style. Before Japanese influence in Peru, chefs would marinate fish (traditionally, corvina) for hours, often overnight. It was Japanese immigrants who taught Peruvians to treat raw fish more simply, and merely “cook it with lemon” seconds before plating, as Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate puts it. Tiradito, raw fish cut in the manner of sashimi but dressed with a spicy sauce, is another staple of Nikkei menus.
Still, unlike say Mexican cuisine, it’s not easy to reel off the names of foods that are “Nikkei.” “It’s kind of hard to explain because only Peruvians can recognize a dish that’s emblematic of Peruvian cuisine,” says Llama Inn chef Erik Ramirez. This could be why despite murmurs of a rise over the past few years, Peruvian cuisine has yet to truly stake a claim in most American cities. However, in recent months, it seems a new wave of Nikkei restaurants are opening stateside, and with a Nikkei import straight from Peru coming soon to Miami, it could be that Nikkei cuisine — featuring dishes like sushi with Amazonian fish, anticucho meat skewers with sesame and yuzu-based sauces, and ceviches and tiraditos that combine Japanese citrus with aji peppers — has finally arrived.
Osaka began as a popup in Lima in 2001. By 2002, owners Diego De La Puente and Diego Herrera opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, also in Lima. After hearing from tourists that they should expand outside of Peru, they opened an Osaka in Buenos Aires. “In Buenos Aires the brand took off,” De La Puente says. “From there it has been a constant growth and success story.” There are now 11 Osaka locations in seven South American cities. They vary slightly, each using local ingredients, but all serve Nikkei cuisine, like their appropriately titled “Nikkei” ceviche (a tuna ceviche with quinoa, Japanese cucumber, and yuzu sauce). And Osaka’s consistent popularity in South America informed the location of its first U.S. outpost.
According to De La Puente, Miami made the most sense for Osaka’s American debut. “We’re targeting a community a that already knows about us,” he explains. “They either lived in South America in any of the cities where Osaka is today and they already know the concept, or they have family or a relationship with somebody who already knows the concept.” In Miami, Peruvian cuisine is well represented thanks to its large population of Peruvian-Americans, but chefs in cities without a customer base familiar with Nikkei cuisine admit that it’s not always an easy sell.
Over the past decade, Zarate, the self-proclaimed “godfather of Peruvian cuisine” in America, has opened several different Peruvian restaurants on the west coast. Some cited Japanese influences, but it wasn’t until 2018 that Zarate opened a restaurant with an explicit focus on Nikkei cuisine. At Once (pronounced like the number 11 in Spanish) in Las Vegas, Zarate’s introducing Nikkei to people from all over the world, not just Nevada residents. “It’s like the first fighter,” he says of being the only Nikkei restaurant on the Vegas strip. “I’m sure it will open the doors for many other Peruvian and Nikkei restaurants, but I’m the one who has to take the punches.” So far, though, he says he can’t complain.
In New York, Sen Sakana, the city’s first Nikkei restaurant, met a lukewarm reception when it opened in 2017. Chef Mina Newman, the Peruvian half of the team that, at the time, also included Japanese chef Taku Nagai, says people didn’t know what to expect. “It’s hard to be number one because you have to constantly remind people about just what this cuisine is,” she says. “This is a culture that really just exists in Peru and we’re introducing it here to New York.” When describing her restaurant she still follows up “Nikkei” with the additional explicator “Japanese-Peruvian,” but says hearing it described as “fusion” is like “nails on a chalkboard.” “The negative connotation of this kills me,” Newman says, and adds that in New York, bagels, a food brought to the U.S. by immigrants and shaped by the city, aren’t labeled as fusion. She thinks Nikkei cuisine should be considered with the same deference.
But Nikkei remains relatively under the radar. “What’s really curious is that despite a lot of talk or discourse at least in the culinary world about how popular Nikkei cuisine has become, most people don’t know anything about it,” Takenaka says. She says she’s asked crowds at conferences if they’ve heard of Nikkei cuisine only to see a few hands go up. However, Newman believes that since opening Sen Sakana, there’s a bit more general awareness of Nikkei, at least in New York City, thanks to increased travel to Peru. Indeed, Peru has the fastest-growing tourism sector in South America.
Sen Sakana won’t be New York City’s lone Nikkei restaurant for much longer. In a couple months, Erik Ramirez is opening Nikkei restaurant Llama San. It’s the third addition to his Peruvian mini-empire; when the space became available just around the corner from his Peruvian sandwich shop Llamita, he knew it would be a great opportunity to bring the city a restaurant different from the ones he had done before. Nikkei cuisine in particular was the right concept for a number of reasons, one being his grandmother is Nikkei. “One of the best ways to learn your cultural history is through food,” he says. “I thought it would be a great way to expand my knowledge and continue developing this Peruvian flavor profile in New York.” Ramirez also thinks that the patrons of his first two restaurants, Llama Inn and Llamita, will easily take to Nikkei food. “They like acidity and spiciness and bold flavors, so I think that combination will be a home run and I think New Yorkers will really dig it,” he says.
Nikkei has gained a foothold just outside of New York City, proof there’s an appetite for the cuisine on the East Coast. Nikkei of Peru opened in 2016 and earned a favorable review from the New York Times months later. Since then, owners Asa and Lina Jong have opened Nikkei restaurants in Oyster Bay and Rye, New York. Newman, for one, says more Nikkei cuisine in the area can only be a good thing. “I’m really excited. I feel like that solidifies that this is a cuisine,” Newman says of Llama San’s opening. “We can walk together this lonely path.”
Osaka has already proven Nikkei’s appeal outside of Peru; North America is the next step, and the time to do it is now. “We don’t want to be late to a party,” De La Puente says. Osaka will open in Miami and then London before De La Puente and Herrera begin to consider other American cities, including Chicago, Boston, or even New York, although De La Puente admits he’s a bit scared of the notoriously tough market for restaurants there.
The chefs at New York’s Nikkei restaurants, however, would likely welcome the competition. “In Miami you say, ‘Let’s go eat ceviche,’” Newman says. Her hope is that the phrase — and the food — will catch on everywhere else, too.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.