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“Nikkei Food” for Whom? Gastro-Politics and Culinary Representation in Peru

¿Para quién es la comida Nikkei? Gastro-política y representación culinaria en Perú
Ayumi Takenaka

Abstracts

Peru is undergoing a gastronomic “boom.” The government, together with the private sector, actively promotes “its” food as an engine of growth and national unity and branding. One key component of this gastro-politics is the emergence of elite gastronomy, such as Nikkei food. Broadly defined as Peruvian and Japanese fusion food, Nikkei food is celebrated as emblematic of the nation’s immigration history and rich ethnic diversity. Today, it is arguably the most successful subgenre of Peruvian food to have made its mark in the global culinary market. How has Nikkei food “made it,” and who is behind the process? In this paper, I examine Peru’s gastro-politics in explaining the emergence and success of Nikkei food, focusing on the role of elite chefs and the Japanese-Peruvian community. Drawing on document and historical analysis, as well as field research in Lima, I argue that a key lies in how different actors promoted “their” food within the framework of Peru’s gastro-diplomacy--namely, (1) how Peru’s gastro-elites promoted Peruvian food globally, mostly through gourmet fusion food, (2) how the Japanese-Peruvian community capitalized on it by promoting Nikkei food as their own, and (3) how different actors came together in defining Peruvian gastronomy as “fusion” made up of diverse culinary traditions. Nikkei food has succeeded, partly because of its association with Japanese food, already popular in the global culinary market, and partly because of the resources and status of Lima’s prosperous Japanese-Peruvian community; but what also mattered was Peru’s gastro-politics, of how Peru’s gastronomy was promoted, by whom, and for whom.

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Introduction

1Nikkei food is in “vogue.” It has gained visibility with the advent of trendy restaurants owned by celebrity chefs, such as Ferran and Albert Adrià (Barcelona), Gastón Acurio (Lima), and Nobu Matsuhisa (Los Angeles). In introducing a newly opened Nikkei restaurant, Sen Sakana, in New York City, Hanah Walhout of Food & Wine Magazine described Nikkei food as the “trendiest fusion concept to hit the city” (Sept. 27, 2017). This “world famous cuisine” has reached far corners of the globe, including Panama, the UK, France, Ecuador, Spain, Chile, Austria, Macao, Hong Kong, Germany, and most recently in Australia (Rennick 2017). Mitsuharu Tsumura, the owner-chef of Maido, Lima’s exclusive restaurant ranked 8th in the world (and the 1st in Latin America) by Restaurant magazine (2017), said with confidence, “Nikkei food will soon conquer the world!” (interview, 2016).

2This cuisine is broadly defined as Peruvian and Japanese fusion food. Although the term “Nikkei” generally refers to Japanese emigrants and their descendants, mostly settled in the Americas, when it comes to food, it has specifically become known as Peruvian. At Pakta (meaning “union” in Quechua), a fancy Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona, their two tasting menus are called “Machu Pichu” and “Fujiyama.” Its signature dish, tiradito, features thinly sliced raw fish akin to Japanese sashimi, marinated with lime and a touch of Peruvian ají peppers. Declared “quintessentially Peruvian” by Tsumura and Barrón in their book, Nikkei es Perú (Nikkei is Peru) (2013), Nikkei food is said to have succeeded because the opposites of “Japanese solemnity” and “Peruvian passion” blend beautifully on the plate (Rennick 2017; Tsumura and Barrón 2013; Acurio 2006).

3This elite gastronomy, catering mostly to high-end food-savvy consumers, has arguably played a key role in promoting Peruvian food worldwide. The renowned Spanish chef, Ferran Adrià, described Nikkei food as the most successful genre of Peruvian cuisine to make a mark in the global culinary market, before opening his own Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona with his brother in 2013 (Higa 2015). Chef Abel Gálvez also spoke about Nikkei food as the “latest hit of our country” to penetrate European capitals1 (see also Acurio 2006).

4How did Nikkei food gain ground in the global culinary scene? And why did it emerge, and succeed, as Peruvian, rather than American or Brazilian despite a larger presence of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in the US and Brazil? Behind this, I argue, are two key developments in Peru: the “boom” of Peru’s gastronomy and the thriving status of the Japanese-Peruvian community. Namely, the success of this “Peruvian and Japanese fusion food” is attributed to: (1) how Peru’s gastro-elites have promoted “their” food, and (2) how Lima’s prosperous Japanese-Peruvian community has capitalized on it by claiming Nikkei food as “their own.” Together, a key lies in how these actors came together in defining and diffusing “Peruvian” food globally within the framework of the country’s gastro-diplomacy. By elaborating on these, this paper aims to shed light on the power dynamics implicated in the process of defining and diffusing a cuisine—what is Nikkei food, what is Peruvian food, who defines them, and whose food is promoted, by whom, and for whom? Although Peru’s gastro-elites have tried to promote “Peruvian food” as a symbol of cultural diversity and a tool for inclusive development, the “boom” led by elite fusion gastronomy, such as Nikkei food, has largely reflected the country’s existing power hierarchy.

5The paper draws on secondary sources on Nikkei and Peruvian cuisines and visits to a dozen Nikkei restaurants in and outside Peru between 2015 and 2017. During my stay in Lima, in May-June 2016 and April-May 2017, I interviewed 20 chefs, government officials, and staff of gastronomic organizations. The secondary sources used include government publications on Peruvian gastronomy and policies, newspaper articles, food blogs, and Kaikan, the official monthly magazine of the Japanese-Peruvian community’s umbrella association, the Japanese-Peruvian Association (APJ). Based on analysis of these secondary and primary sources, I discuss below: (1) how Nikkei food emerged in the first place, followed by (2) how it gained ground as “Peruvian” in the context of the Peruvian gastronomic boom and diplomacy and (3) the thriving Japanese-Peruvian community in Lima, Peru.

The origins of Nikkei food

6How this fusion food came about has multiple stories, depending on how it is defined and by whom (Takenaka 2017). Multiple actors have focused on different aspects of the cuisine in defining and claiming it as their own. Peru’s gastro-elites, such as culinary specialists and prominent chefs, tend to trace the origin of Nikkei food to the type of food produced and served at restaurants owned or run by Nikkei, or Japanese immigrants and their descendants, in Peru (Balbi 1997; Acurio 2006). According to this view, Nikkei food is a product of what is produced in Peru and consumed by Peruvians.

7Historically, many Japanese immigrants had worked in restaurants in Lima. Although most Japanese immigrants initially arrived in Peru (1899-1930s) to work on agricultural plantations, upon terminating their contracts, many headed (or fled) to urban centers to engage in small businesses, such as restaurants, cafes, and small eateries (Takenaka 2004). These places mostly served Peruvian food, known as creole food (comida criolla), for local Peruvian customers. Since many of their kitchen assistants, waiting staff, and some cooks were non-Japanese-Peruvians, these businesses served as a place to interact with locals, mixing flavors and experimenting with different ingredients (Tsumura and Barrón 2013; Morimoto 2010).

8A pioneer restaurant is La Buena Muerte, founded by Minoru Kunigami, a son of Japanese immigrants, in 1959 (Acurio 2006; Morimoto 2010; Balbi 1997). Like most Japanese-run restaurants, La Buena Muerte served typical creole dishes found in any cevichería--sudados (stews), parrihuelas (seafood soup), ceviches (marinated fish) etc.--, but the restaurant offered slightly different flavors, according to a local paper Ojo (Feb. 20, 2005): “Their dishes are spiced down, and are instead enhanced by Japanese ingredients—miso, soy sauce, and wasabi.” Kunigami’s “fusion seafood” became a local hit—from “sashimi,” or ceviche served with ginger and wasabi to “tamal de kamaboko,” fish cake made with miso and Peruvian dried potatoes. By incorporating what he had learned from his Japanese parents and adjusting to the palates of his Peruvian customers, he succeeded in combining “creole flavors with Japanese culinary art” (Ojo, Feb. 20, 2005).

9Another pioneer often cited in the history of Nikkei food is Rosita Yimura, a restaurateur best known for her signature dishes, pulpo al olivo (skinless octopus covered with olive cream sauce) and chita sudada (fish stew). Rodolfo Hinostroza, a Peruvian food critic who frequented Yimura’s restaurant, explained “the special touch you sense and taste in her food” as a reflection of “how she and other Nisei (second-generation Japanese immigrants) became integrated in Peru by creating a harmony between Japanese values and their Peruvian upbringing” (cited in Yimura et al. 1995: 4). “This great cultural mixture of rich seafood traditions in Japan with ardent sauces and spices of Peruvian food,” he lauded, is a “precious jewelry of our cookery” (ibid).

10In this view, Nikkei food is viewed as an outcome of cultural fusion that occurred in Peru. As Gastón Acurio (2006) explained in his “Nikkei Cookbook,” Nikkei food is basically “Peruvian food with a Japanese touch (not Japanese food with Peruvian influences), combining the Japanese obsession for ingredients, immaculate techniques, and esthetic senses with our flavor, our sea, our farms, and our tastes” (Acurio 2006: 82). Nikkei food, thus, is “our very Peruvian food” (nuestra peruanísima cocina) (Acurio 2006: 31), made possible by the very ability and adaptability of Peruvian food to embrace different flavors from around the world (Lara Ardel, cited in Yimura et al. 1995: 13).

  • 2 Okinawa was an independent kingdom, as the Ryukyu Kingdom, before it was annexed by Japan in 1879. (...)

11Whereas Peruvian gastro-elites tend to define Nikkei food as a Peruvian invention that emerged in a Peruvian public space, Japanese-Peruvians themselves regard the food as rooted, first and foremost, in what was consumed by Japanese immigrants and their descendants. Accordingly, the Japanese-Peruvian Association (APJ), the central organ of the community, traces the origin of Nikkei food to the “need of Japanese immigrants who arrived in Peru to nourish themselves” (APJ 2013). Nikkei cuisine, in their view, all began in the homes of Japanese immigrants where they tried to replicate what they had eaten before, substituting local ingredients for the traditional ingredients lacked in Peru (Morimoto 2010). To preserve Japanese tradition in Peru, the “creolization” of food was inevitable, according to Rosita Yimura (1995) who explained that it is how her dishes were created (p. 12). A third-generation Japanese-Peruvian interviewed echoed this in describing what he ate at home: “We often had sashimi with soy sauce and Peruvian lime juice, instead of wasabi” which was not readily available at that time, “and also tempura of Peruvian sweet potatoes,” referring to a deep-fried Japanese dish of vegetables and seafood. Another Japanese descendant in her 50s described the food she grew up on as “champuru,” meaning “mixture” in Okinawa where most Japanese immigrants in Peru hailed from. “We just mixed everything at home and made otsuyu (soup) or itame (fried vegetables) and ate it with gohan (steamed ice without salt), using ohashi (chopsticks),” she said, throwing commonly used Japanese words into Spanish. Out of lack of readily available products, Japanese immigrants made dashi (fish broth) by drying tuna at home and invented yuca mochi, sweet rice cakes, substituting Peruvian yuca (cassava) for glutinous rice. To many Japanese-Peruvians, this type of “creativity” is an essence of Nikkei food; it is about what they ate at home and how they grew up, whether it may be called Peruvian, Japanese, or Okinawan.2

12Nikkei food as a label offers yet another story. While the food we know today as “Nikkei” may have origins in Japanese-Peruvian homes or restaurants, it became labeled and marketed as such by culinary specialists outside the Japanese-Peruvian community (Takenaka 2017). First of all, the popularization of Nikkei food is owed to two renowned chefs from Japan, Nobu Matsuhisa and Toshiro Konishi, who arrived in Peru during the 1970s. Nobu, a master sushi chef known for his adept skills in adapting Japanese food to local taste, invented “tiradito,” a signature dish of Nikkei food, by mixing thinly sliced raw fish with lime juice and Peruvian peppers. Toshiro followed in his footsteps by further popularizing fusion sushi through appearances on national television (Tsumura and Barrón 2013). These two Japanese chefs of international standing played a key role in “upgrading” and “refining” Peruvian-Japanese fusion food by bringing in sophisticated culinary skills and techniques from Japan, according to Acurio (2006). Subsequently, they took the food to the world out of Japanese-Peruvian homes and restaurants, and Nobu, in particular, made it globally known by building an empire of restaurants around the world.

13The popularization of Nikkei food was also facilitated by the global boom of sushi, and of Japanese food in general, across countries. Although eating raw fish was long considered alien in much of the world, it became popular in the 1980s, particularly in the US, when the number of Japanese restaurants and companies increased in the context of Japan’s expanding economy (Sakamoto and Allen 2011). During its heyday, many Japanese chefs traveled to the US, along with Japanese expatriate businessmen, making Japanese cuisine more available and accessible to the public. The popularization of Japanese food (and of sushi) was partly thanks to the influence of celebrities and partly to the local adaptation of sushi through the invention of the “California Roll.” Gradually, sushi became a symbol of sophistication, health-consciousness, and trendiness, and this sent ripples to Peru.

14Although the “fusion” food Nobu took to the world from Lima was known outside Peru as “Japanese” or “Nobu-style” (Acurio 2006), in Peru it was coined “Nikkei food” by Rodolfo Hinostroza, the aforementioned food writer and poet, in his 1983 article in La Republica, a Peruvian daily. Following this, the status of Nikkei food as a new genre of Peruvian cuisine was firmly established when prominent Peruvian chefs, such as Gastón Acurio, promoted it as such in the context of the gastronomic boom in their country during the 1990s and 2000s.

15Today, Nikkei food is broadly defined as fusion food that combines Japanese and Peruvian ingredients. Yet, it does not refer to just any mixture. “Japanese” ingredients regarded as key in Nikkei food generally include shoyu, miso, hondashi, or wasabi, which have all entered the Peruvian culinary vocabulary. The key “Peruvian” component, on the other hand, is ají or Peruvian peppers. Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura identified as the key elements of Nikkei food soy sauce, fish or kelp broth, and “100% ají.” Also central to Nikkei food are fish, shellfish, and other sea products (Morimoto 2010). Japanese food in Peru has traditionally been associated with seafood or sushi. Consequently, Nikkei food usually contains fish in combination with Peruvian ají, as exemplified by “maki acevichado,” or a ceviche roll, containing Peruvian-style marinated fish rolled up with rice, avocado, and seaweed (Tsumura and Barrón 2013). “The primordial ingredient of Nikkei food should come from the sea,” Gastón Acurio explains in his Nikkei cookbook (2006: 102). “So, just adding soy sauce to ají de gallina (a popular Peruvian dish of creamy chicken) doesn’t automatically make it Nikkei!” (Acurio 2006: 83). The creation of Nikkei food, like any other, entailed the process of selection and legitimation of certain ingredients. And this process reflected how this food was promoted in Peru -by whom and for whom.

Peru’s gastro-diplomacy: how Peruvian gastro-elites have promoted “their” food

16The success of Nikkei food owes, in large part, to Peru’s gastronomic “boom.” Over the past decade, Peruvian food has made it to the center stage of the global culinary scene. In 2011, it was recognized as “Cultural Heritage of the Americas” by the Organization of the American States. Peruvian restaurants now occupy the top ranks of the “Best Restaurants in Latin America” (The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy 2017). Granted the World Tourism Award as the “Best Culinary Destination” for six consecutive years during 2012-2017, Lima has been converted into a gastronomic mecca (The Economist 2014). Capitalizing on this moment, the Peruvian government, together with the private sector, began to actively promote “its” food as an engine of economic growth and national unity and branding (Wilson 2011; Matta 2016).

17Gastro-diplomacy, or nation branding through food, is widely practiced today across countries (Rockower 2012; Wilson 2011; Anholt 2007). It began in Thailand when the Thai government launched a “Global Thai” campaign in 2002 to increase the number of Thai restaurants in the hope of improving the country’s image, status, and diplomatic relations with other countries (Rockower 2012; The Economist 2002; Ruddy 2014). Others soon followed, including Malaysia (Malaysia Kitchen for the World campaign), Japan (Taste of Japan), Taiwan (Gourmet Taiwan), Colombia (Café de Colombia), South Korea (Hansic Global Project), and the US (Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Program). Food serves well for cultural diplomacy, because it provides a tangible tie to a national culture and is fundamental to human lives (Rockower 2012; Pham 2013; Chapple-Sokol 2013). This strategy is particularly effective for mid-income developing countries, according to Rockower (2012), because it is possible to enhance their visibility by spreading their restaurants and creating demand for their ingredients without expending significant resources (Public Diplomacy Magazine 2014; The Economist 2014). That is precisely what Peru has tried to do.

18Recognizing the potential of food, the Peruvian government elevated the country’s gastronomy to the rank of “National Heritage” in 2007 and placed it at the center of its cultural policy and diplomacy (Mapstone 2009; Wilson 2013). By running campaigns, such as “La Cocina Peruana para el Mundo” (2011), “Perú Mucho Gusto” (2006-) and “Marca Perú” (2011-), the government has produced promotion videos and pamphlets, sent prominent chefs abroad, and co-sponsored culinary events and fairs (PromPerú 2016). Among the highlights is Mistura, an international food fair, organized annually (since 2008) by the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA), a trade association of elite chefs in Peru. To further promote its food, the government constructed a museum of Peruvian gastronomy in Lima in 2011. All these efforts, in principle, aimed to foster economic growth and development through food; as elaborated in “Peruvian Gastronomy for 2021: Guidelines for a Development Program of Peruvian Gastronomy in the Framework of the Bicentenary Plan” (CEPLAN 2010), food today is identified as an important tool of inclusive economic development for all Peruvians.

19Gastro-diplomacy first appeared in the Peruvian policy repertoire in 2006 (Nicholls 2006, cited in Rockower 2012). To showcase a variety of Peruvian foodstuffs, the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, DC began working with investors and top Peruvian chefs. Although there already were a number of Peruvian-style chicken restaurants in DC, they wanted to expand Peruvian restaurants in the United States, especially high-end ones (Rockower 2012). Receptions hosted by the embassy, therefore, did not feature the popular Peruvian roasted chicken, pollo a la brasa; instead, they served various types of fusion food, prepared by top-chefs, mixing flavors of the Incas, Spanish, Chinese, African, Japanese etc., to highlight the country’s culinary diversity.

The tactics of gastro-politics: “diversity” and “fusion”

20Diversity, indeed, is a key concept for Peru’s gastro-diplomacy. In demonstrating the great potential of Peruvian food, the country’s gastro-elites stress, and celebrate, the country’s “extraordinary” diversity--ecological, geographical, and cultural. Peru’s surface area extends from a long coastline to Andean valleys and the Amazon jungle, so goes the typical rhetoric, and its variegated ecosystems produce more species of fish and plants useful for mankind than any other country in the world (CEPLAN 2010). In its culinary promotion booklet, PromPerú (2016) also describes how “Peru was born diverse” (“el Perú nació diverso”) by claiming “more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, 600 spices of fruits, and 35 types of corn” found in the country (p. 8). “Diversity is the source of our rich culinary tradition,” a government official repeatedly told me during an interview (2016). “It epitomizes our culture. Peruvians have been creative and inventive in exploiting diverse ingredients. So everybody eats well here, always, including the poor.” Peruvian food, therefore, is typically characterized by its regional variety, enhanced by cultural influences brought about through a long history of immigration. In its introductory book to Peruvian food, written in English, PERUGUIA (2014) presents the country’s gastronomy as “the result of the mixture and blending of indigenous and Spanish cooking, beginning with the Conquest of 1532,” which then evolved gradually with migrants coming in from Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere (p. 5). The Museum of Peruvian Gastronomy explains that the Spaniards brought pork, eggs, wine, grapes, wheat etc., followed by Italians who introduced pasta and panettone to the country; later on, Arabs added coriander, oregano, and chickpeas, and the Chinese invented chifa (Peruvian-Chinese) by bringing in soy products and ginger, and then, the Japanese expanded “our” seafood. The result is Peruvian: a rich union of diverse culinary traditions.

21An underlying notion here is mixture, fusion, and unity, which are somewhat used interchangeably. Peruvian food is a “mixture” of different cuisines, simultaneously respecting different culinary traditions. In his cookbook, entitled “500 Years of Fusion,” Gastón Acurio (2009) portrays Peruvian food as “fusion,” tracing its roots to the country’s 500-year history of cultural mixing. This notion is sometimes likened to “mestizaje,” which traditionally referred to racial inter-mixing between Spanish conquerors and indigenous populations (Wade 1997). Mestizaje was featured as a central theme in Acurio’s 2006 seminal speech, which ignited the gastronomic boom in the country. “We are a great nation, created through centuries of mestizaje,” he addressed an enthusiastic audience at the Universidad de Pacífico. “Mestizaje is what made our cuisine rich and diverse. In mestizaje we should find a source of inspiration and energy to generate wealth and consolidate our nation.” The importance of ethnic and cultural mixture is similarly highlighted in Mistura (meaning “mixture”) where diverse regional and ethnic cuisines are presented to 500,000 or so international visitors annually (El Comercio 2013). Dubbed a festival of peruanidad (Peruvian-ness), Mistura is described by APEGA, the organizer, as the most important culinary fair in Latin America that “unites all flavors and bloods of Peru” (APEGA 2017). It is this “unity” that represents “our identity,” explained an organizer. “Paradoxical as it seems, in a country so vast and diverse as Peru, cultural unity, represented by our food, is what defines us as Peruvian” (El Comercio 2011). In promoting gastronomy as part of its cultural policy, the Ministry of Culture also portrays Peru, first and foremost, as a “multicultural” country committed to respecting the millennium history of cultural and ethnic mixture and co-existence; as represented in its food, Peru is a country where different cultural and regional traditions are blended, respected, and represented together in harmony (Ministerio de Cultura 2012).

22Cast in this light, the notion of culinary fusion –like mestizaje—has served for Lima’s gastro-elites as a symbol of inclusion and a tool to forge national unity and cohesion. At Mistura, prominent chefs often celebrate Peruvian cuisine as a “social force capable of erasing enduring class divisions” (RPP Noticias 2009). “Our gastronomy has brought the nation closer together,” claims Valderrama (2017), the director of APEGA, citing surveys showing how Peruvians increasingly express a sense of pride of being Peruvian because of their food (APEGA 2013; Valderrama 2017; PromPerú 2016). The sense of cohesion brought about by the gastronomic boom is also lauded by Fan (2013) who refers to Peruvian gastronomy as “a bridge of unity, tolerance, and opportunities” (p. 26). Food has generated newly created opportunities for all, asserts APEGA (2010, 2013), promoting inclusive development through the extensive chain of food production, distribution, and provision. Reflecting on the success of Mistura 2011, the organizers stated, “Peruvian gastronomy has provoked the sense that we now all sit together at the same table to enjoy the great flavors of our food rooted in diverse culinary traditions. This diversity has brought us unity, overcoming prejudices, discrimination and conflicts” that long plagued the country (El Comercio 2011).

The differential impacts of gastro-politics

23Whether the culinary boom has actually brought about inclusive development for all needs to be discussed. Although some reports have indicated macro-level economic growth as a result of the gastronomic “boom” (Valderrama 2017; Lavoie-Mathieu 2012; PromPerú 2016; APEGA 2010, 2013), research has shown that the growth has not quite fed through into greater social equality (Matta 2013; Garcia 2013; Bohardt 2014). Since the “boom” has mostly been generated top-town, led by elite gastronomy for urban clientele, Matta (2013) maintains that the growth of the food sector has reproduced, rather than ameliorated, long-standing social hierarchies in Peru. This “upper-class gourmet project,” as Bohardt (2014) calls the country’s gastro-politics, has principally aimed at marketing Peruvian food “globally” by “upgrading” indigenous foods for high-end clientele (Bohardt 2014). Upon discovering the values of previously degraded indigenous foods, such as quinoa and kiwicha, elite urban chefs transformed them, top-down, to haute cuisine to cater to the palates of food-savvy global consumers (Matta 2013).

24Indeed, most of the newly emerged Peruvian restaurants, particularly in major metropolises abroad, serve high-end gourmet fusion food for wealthy consumers, according to a preliminary study I conducted in Spain (also, PromPerú 2017). In such restaurants, an indigenous dish of cuy, a roasted guinea pig, for instance, is artfully “transformed” (García 2013); traditionally served in its entirety from head to toe, this animal is now finely minced and hidden deep inside a wrapper, as in the case of “Gyoza de Cuy,” a Japanese-inspired dumpling served at Maido, a fancy Nikkei restaurant in Lima. Novoandina (or “New Andean”) cuisine, which emerged in the context of the Peruvian gastronomic boom, is another case in point. In this modern-style fusion food combing traditional ingredients from the Andean region, so-called “backward” indigenous products were transformed to “sophisticated” cuisine by elite urban chefs, even to the extent that they are no longer recognizable or relatable to indigenous populations (García 2013).

25In this process of “ethnic updating” (Matta 2013), urban elites appropriated indigenous foods by picking and selecting certain items; and in trying to increase the visibility and status of Peruvian gastronomy globally, indigenous knowledge and cultural backgrounds were largely dismissed (Bohardt 2014). Consequently, indigenous populations often feel marginalized from the boom. Not only are they alienated from globally acclaimed “Peruvian” dishes, such as “Gyoza de Cuy,” they increasingly find it difficult to access their own products due to their souring prices in the global commodity market (Bohardt 2014). APEGA staff members who organize food fairs for rural agricultural producers acknowledged in an interview that the impact of the boom has not yet reached small-scale subsistence farmers (2016). Despite a nation-wide initiative to promote national unity and inclusive development through food, not all populations are or feel represented (Wilson 2011); the hierarchical relationship between urban elites and rural agricultural producers has largely remained unchanged (García 2014).

Promoting Nikkei food: how the Japanese-Peruvian community has promoted “their” food

26Meanwhile, the global “boom” of Peruvian gastronomy set the stage for the proliferation of Nikkei food. Nikkei food had an advantage in penetrating the global upscale market, partly because the popularity of sushi (and Japanese food) was already in place, and partly because of its association with Japan, a global economic power. According to a manager of a fancy Peruvian restaurant interviewed in Barcelona, Japanese-inspired dishes (i.e., Nikkei food) were particularly popular because (high-end) customers were already used to eating sushi and tended to associate Japanese food with trendiness and healthy food. “So, Nikkei food is paving the path for Peruvian food to penetrate the global high-end market,” he explained. At a Nikkei restaurant in London, the staff also told me that their decision to focus on Nikkei food was based on the popularity of sushi. “Since the sushi market is already saturated, we wanted to do something different. We then settled on Nikkei, Japanese with a Peruvian touch.” Even though a Japanese sushi chef at the restaurant did not quite like or approve of the idea of “Peruvianized sushi,” he agreed in the end, he said: “As long as we call it Peruvian or Nikkei, it’s fine for me.”

27The popularity of Nikkei food has generated “a maki boom” in Peru. Beyond the signature dish of maki acevichado, there are now “maki of tacu tacu” (a Peruvian-style dish of rice and beans), “maki causa” (Peruvian yellow potatoes with avocado and mayonnaise), and “maki of lomo saltado” (a popular Peruvian dish of sautéed beef, tomatoes, and potatoes). Makis have exploded so much in form and content that there are also pizza maki, tempura maki, and “just about anything and everything rolled up in something,” grinned a wary Peruvian chef of Japanese ancestry. This maki boom, which occurred as part and parcel of the Peruvian gastronomic boom, was also boosted by the growing popularity of Japanese food and popular culture, such as anime and manga, in Peru. The so-called return migration of Japanese descendants (and other Peruvians) to Japan, beginning in the late 1980s, also contributed to this boom. As migrants began to go back and forth between Peru and Japan, they brought Japanese culture, including food, closer home, and some established Japanese (or Nikkei) restaurants in Lima upon return from Japan (Takenaka 2014).

28As Nikkei food has gained popularity, the Japanese-Peruvian community has tried to capitalize on it by claiming the food as their own. Food now occupies a central place in Japanese-Peruvians’ community activities. The number of Nikkei and Japanese culinary courses offered at APJ’s Cultural Center has grown rapidly. The annual Nikkei Festival, held in Lima since 2014, features Nikkei food as an emblematic aspect of Nikkei culture. In 2017, the annual Nikkei Gastronomy Festival was launched, featuring tiradito and maki acevichado, under the community’s auspices. The second Festival, held in 2018 with Japanese-Peruvian community leaders and the Japanese ambassador to Peru, was widely publicized in the national media and attracted many people from around the country, according to an organizer. The production of Nikkei cookbooks and a documentary is also underway. The official publication of the APJ, Kaikan, features one or two Nikkei restaurants every month, and food has grown into perhaps the single most important issue, judging from the coverage of the magazine’s contents published between 2010 and 2016. Thanks to the popularity of Nikkei and Japanese cuisine, food has brought in significant revenues to the community, according to the Japanese-Peruvian community leaders I interviewed. Subsequently, leaders use Nikkei food as a strategy to promote their community and culture as well as a way to affirm their identity and privileged status in Peru.

29To this aim, the community established the Association of Nikkei Gastronomy in 2016, made up of prominent Nikkei chefs and culinary experts, within the Japanese-Peruvian Cultural Center. A central objective, according to the president, is to diffuse and promote Nikkei food “correctly.” This means teaching proper culinary techniques, as well as “a bit of protecting and looking after Nikkei food,” he said in reaction to the sudden surge of a variety (and dubious types) of Nikkei dishes. “Nikkei food is not just about throwing in anything together, like chicken maki or pizza maki, with too much cheese and mayonnaise.” Wary of the widespread “abuse,” the Association sets out to build a new Nikkei culinary school. By formalizing an institution, members of the Association, together with the Japanese-Peruvian Association (APJ), try to authenticate Nikkei food, thereby claiming its ownership.

Nikkei food as a representation of immigrant history and identity

30Japanese-Peruvians try to claim ownership of Nikkei food primarily by emphasizing the importance of Japanese culinary tradition and then, associating that with their own background as Peruvians of Japanese origin. These tactics closely follow the assertion they often make about Nikkei food that first, its essence lies in Japanese culinary tradition and second, it mirrors their own history and very identity. Because of this belief, the 1-year diploma course to be offered at the Nikkei cooking school will first cover the fundamentals of Japanese cookery, taught by a Nikkei chef, followed by techniques of creole food, according to the president. It is imperative to master culinary skills and techniques first, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura told me, “People create all kinds of fusion makis, because they basically don’t know how to cook.” Another Nikkei chef, Roger Arakaki of Sushi Ito also stated that Japanese culinary skills and traditions should be respected as a base of Nikkei food, explaining that his cooking, similar to Chef Tsumura’s, is based on what he learned and trained in Japan. Because of its strong association with Japan, Nikkei food served at restaurants often carries Japanese (stereotypical) names: in addition to Kappa Maki, Tekka Maki, and Gunkan Maki typically served in Japanese sushi restaurants, one also finds Samurai Maki, Geisha Maki, Katana Maki, Shogun Maki, Ninja Maki (all containing some kind of creamy ají sauce). At Edo Sushi in Lima, all employees, wearing a Japanese happi coat, greet you in unison in Japanese when you enter and leave the restaurant: “Irasshai!” (welcome), “Hai!” (yes), “Arigato!” (thank you).

31Likewise, Japanese-Peruvians, including culinary specialists and others, tend to stress their own upbringing as an important aspect of Nikkei food. To them, Nikkei food, just like themselves, is a product of what Japanese immigrants brought from Japan and how their descendants built on it in Peru. Because of this belief, many Nikkei chefs I interviewed associated Nikkei food with what they inherited from their immigrant ancestors at home. Chef Hajime Kasuga of Hanzo, an upscale Nikkei restaurant in Lima, described his cooking as “the history of Obachan,” using the colloquial Japanese word (meaning “grandma”) frequently used among Japanese-Peruvians. At Costanera 700, another (very) fancy Nikkei restaurant, the menu included “Angus sirloin strip stew, ‘Obachan’ style, served with rice.” The menu also began with a message of tribute to the first group of 790 Japanese immigrants who arrived in Peru in 1899. “Nikkei food is a representation of our identity on a plate,” Chef Kasuga told me. Consequently, the “Nikkei Experience” you savor through their food is supposed to be about the history of Nikkei Peruvians, as described on the website (in English) of renowned restaurant Maido:

Nikkei Experience

…Like family trees, cuisines are constantly being redefined, their identities enriched by an intense intercultural exchange… The fireplace is where bloodlines merge, where people come to sing, individual and group histories are forged, life gestates.

The fireplace is where dialogue is fostered, the elements meet, opposites attract.

Thus was born Peruvian Nikkei cuisine: from a complex history called Peru; and another, equally complex, far-off and foreign history called Japan that merged to live in harmony and create the third reality: Nikkei Cuisine. Welcome to our world.3

A key to their world is harmony, sometimes described as a “marriage”. “Like ají and miso which make a perfect marriage, fusion food should be like a marriage, not a sibling relationship,” said the president of the Association of Nikkei Gastronomy. “And this marriage shouldn’t be violated,” he added in criticizing the “abuse” of “their” food. “It’s not about mixing anything, but you should respect ingredients and culinary traditions so that they can stay in marriage.”

32Japanese-Peruvians try to reclaim Nikkei food, not only because they feel they should, but also because they feel that they can, now that they have thrived, as a community, with a respected status and resources in Peru. Since Nikkei food has been promoted by the nation’s gastro-elites of non-Japanese descent as part of Peruvian gastronomy, Japanese-Peruvians feel incorporated and more secure about their place in Peru. For sure, the popularity of Nikkei food has provided a sense of pride for many Japanese-Peruvians. It symbolizes social acceptance in Peru after a long history of discrimination, and the consolidation of their place, now firmly established, in the country. Shinji Soeda, a Nikkei chef of Taiken Sushi Lounge, commented in an interview featured in Kaikan that “I now feel more proud of being Peruvian and having Japanese ancestry” (APJ 2011, p. 31). Chef Hajime Kasuga also expressed joy at how Nikkei food has become accepted and appreciated in Peru and the world, because it is about “our lifestyle, our way of being, our tradition” (APJ 2015, pp. 6-11).

33Amid the nation-wide initiative to promote “inclusive development” and celebrate “multiculturalism,” Japanese-Peruvians feel entitled to claiming Nikkei food by emphasizing the “Japanese” element of this food as their unique contribution to Peru. “Nikkei food is ultimately about our history in Peru,” said Mitsuharu Tsumura in an interview cited in Kaikan (APJ 2015, pp. 6-11). “It is about our struggles and achievements, and above all, about how we’ve enriched Peruvian culture and contributed to Peruvian society.” Inviting me to experience “Nikkei Amazónica,” a 15-course lunch menu, tagged at $125, at his fancy restaurant, Maido, Chef Tsumura added: “By promoting Nikkei food, we are ultimately telling the world who we Nikkei Peruvians are. We are Peruvian, of course, but with a bit of a Japanese touch (un toque japonés).” By affirming their Peruvian-ness in the context of the country’s gastronomic boom, Japanese-Peruvians also try to strengthen their identity as Nikkei through their food in Peru.

The transformed meaning of Nikkei food

34The development of this “trendy” food has come a long way. Not so long ago, Nikkei food, or food associated with the Japanese, was regarded as unpalatable and barbaric and widely marginalized in Peru. Until after World War II, Japanese immigrants and their descendants, who dominated in small restaurants and food business, often on street corners, were derided as chinos de la esquina (street-corner Chinese) by other Peruvians. They faced so much animosity and discrimination that they were fundamentally treated as the “racial other” and unassimilable aliens with a completely different set of cultural behavior, norms, and culinary taste. In perpetuating anti-Japanese sentiments, some national newspapers reported that the foods and drinks sold by the Japanese were poisonous (Takenaka 2004). Subsequently, Japanese-Peruvians, too, felt alienated and tried to maintain a low profile.

35Over half a century later, Nikkei food made it to the center stage of the Peruvian national culinary scene. Obviously, the food consumed by Japanese descendants today is much different from what was originally brought and consumed by immigrants. Peruvian society has also come to tolerate and embrace what was once regarded as alien. And Japanese-Peruvians themselves, too, have become acculturated and integrated, achieving much upward social mobility in Peru. Over the course of their 100-year presence in the country, their community has thrived and grown into one of the most organized and prosperous communities in the country (Fukumoto 1997). The elevated status they enjoy today is partly a result of their economic achievements, but also because of their connections to Japan. Historically, the Japanese government has supported the community by pouring in resources for its own cultural diplomacy (Takenaka 2014). The growing popularity of Japanese culture and food in Peru has also benefitted the community, as stated earlier, as have the increasing migratory movements of Peruvians to Japan (and back), thanks to the role the community has assumed as a “quasi-official” Japanese cultural organ, bridging between Japan and Peru (ibid.).

36The history of how Nikkei food emerged and succeeded, in this sense, is about how Japanese immigrants and their descendants have adapted and “made it” in Peru. Yet it is also about how multiple actors, such as the Peruvian government, elite chefs, and Japanese-Peruvian leaders, appropriated its symbolic meanings in promoting “their” food. For their gastro-diplomatic strategy, Peru’s gastro-elites have used Nikkei food as a symbol of Peru, a multicultural and tolerant nation comprised of immigrants and their descendants from all over the world, and a country rich in culinary traditions due to its geographic and ecological diversity. Nikkei food has also served for them as a vehicle to promote Peruvian food for high-end global consumers because of its association with “healthy” and “trendy” Japanese food.

37Japanese-Peruvians, on the other hand, tapped into this elite tactic, because it was in their own interest to promote Nikkei food. Armed with resources and with Japan’s support, the Japanese-Peruvian community promoted Nikkei food by creating institutions and organizing culinary activities. This strategy was perfectly aligned with the national gastronomic project. Because gastro-elites defined and diffused Peruvian food as “fusion” made up of different cultural traditions, this allowed Japanese-Peruvians to claim Nikkei food as Peruvian and simultaneously as their own. Thus, by promoting Nikkei food, fancy Nikkei restaurants, such as Maido, have contributed to publicizing Peruvian food abroad. And the boom of Peruvian food across the globe, in turn, helped popularize Nikkei food. Although Japanese-Peruvian leaders and Peru’s gastro-elites each had their own agenda, it was this “corroboration” that led to the emergence and success of Nikkei food.

38While different actors may have promoted and defined “their” food differently, the tactics of stressing “fusion” and “unity,” as well as the rhetoric of “inclusive development” and “multiculturalism” employed for the national gastro-project, allowed multiple interpretations of “Peruvian” food. These strategies subsequently made it possible for powerful and resourceful actors to promote “their” food, and enhance their status through food, under the rubric of national culinary celebration. In the context of the Peruvian gastronomic “boom,” Japanese-Peruvians celebrate the success of Nikkei food, thereby celebrating their own identity, as Nikkei Peruvians. In so doing, they also celebrate the rich cultural diversity their country has come to embrace in promoting “their” food as Peruvian.

Conclusions

39More than 50 years after its foundation, La Buena Muerte, a small street-corner bodega, as so known back in the 1960s, has now converted into a “Nikkei restaurant.” Located in the original, now run-down, neighborhood, it proudly hangs a banner on the wall, “Pioneer in Nikkei Cuisine.” Following the gastronomic boom, media interview requests soured, and people started coming in specifically to try “Nikkei food,” according to a son of the founder Minoru Kunigami who now runs the restaurant. Pointing to a signature dish, “tamal de kamaboko,” a fish cake, he told me how proud he is that Nikkei food has become popular today. “It all started here as a result of arduous experiments.” Because there was lack of Japanese ingredients, he explained, his father began serving sliced raw fish with ginger and lime. “It reflects the creativity and ingenuity of Nikkei Peruvians.” Many Japanese-Peruvians, like him, do feel proud of “their” food and believe that it is a manifestation of their unique and valuable tradition as well as their achievements in Peru.

40The success of Nikkei food, however, is rooted, in part, in Peru’s gastronomic “boom.” This “Peruvian and Japanese fusion food” emerged and proliferated in the context where Peru’s gastro-elites promoted Peruvian gastronomy as “fusion” made up of different culinary traditions. Feeling more secure about their place in the country portrayed as open and multicultural, Japanese-Peruvians tried to claim Nikkei food as their own by leveraging their symbolic connection to Japan. The success of Nikkei food helped diffuse Peruvian gastronomy globally, and Japanese-Peruvians, in turn, exploited the boom to their advantage.

41Although the “boom” is widely characterized as a celebration of Peruvian-ness and a vehicle of inclusive development (Valderrama 2017; APEGA 2013, 2010; PromPeru 2016, 2017), its impacts have not been quite uniform. While the elites’ strategy to promote Peruvian gastronomy outward through gourmet fusion food has benefited Nikkei food, it has alienated some indigenous populations (Matta 2013; García 2013). Many poorer Peruvians I met in Lima’s shantytowns and collective buses, indeed, had never heard of or savored Nikkei food (some recognized sushi and maki). The “boom” itself appeared to be a foreign concept to many (also Bohardt 2014). One taxi driver affirmed the richness of Peruvian cuisine, but “Peruvian food has always been great (siempre se come bien).” Another expressed pride that Peruvian food has become better known, since “There is not much positive coming out of the country, apart from Machu Picchu. But now we’ve got food!”

42Food may have boosted a positive sense of Peruvian-ness (Valderrama 2017; Fan 2013). Yet, this nation-wide celebration of “booming” Peruvian gastronomy has mostly been a top-down phenomenon, rather than a horizontal representation of culinary diversity (Matta 2016; García 2013). Underneath the celebratory rhetoric of diversity and inclusion lies power hierarchy. As Kaneva (2011) points out, nation-branding projects promote a particular organization of power and knowledge in the articulation of collective identity (see also Passidomo 2017).

43In the context of the Peruvian gastronomic “boom,” more and more people may feel proud of their “Peruvian” food (Valderrama 2017; Fan 2013). Elite chefs celebrate “Peruvian” food by promoting gourmet fusion food abroad, and Japanese-Peruvians, too, celebrate Nikkei food as “Peruvian.” Amid this nation-wide celebration of “Peruvian food,” we should stop and ask whose food is actually represented, how it is promoted and for whom.

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Notes

1 https://www.gediscovery.edu.pe/blog/nikkei-sensacion-cocina-peruano-japonesa/ (accessed 31/05/2019)

2 Okinawa was an independent kingdom, as the Ryukyu Kingdom, before it was annexed by Japan in 1879. Historically, it produced a disproportionate number of emigrants to Peru.

3 http://www.maido.pe/en/experiencia_nikkei.php (accessed 31/05/2019)

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References

Electronic reference

Ayumi Takenaka, « “Nikkei Food” for Whom? Gastro-Politics and Culinary Representation in Peru », Anthropology of food [Online], 14 | 2019, Online since 17 June 2019, connection on 23 June 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/10065

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About the author

Ayumi Takenaka

Ritsumeikan University, atakenak@fc.ritsumei.ac.jp

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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