What Exactly Is Nikkei Cuisine, the Food That’s Quietly Gaining Momentum?

When the tuna ceviche arrives at the table, my partner and I look down and up at each other with the same puzzled look, as if we rehearsed a bit in a sitcom. We haven’t seen anything quite like it. Chunky slices of tuna, blush pink, form a ring around a yellow pool, the kind of yellow that would get you a punch as a kid, preceded by the words “punch buggy yellow.” Blobbed on the corners of the ring (yes, there are corners…in a circle of tuna, at least) is kiuri, a type of Japanese sauce that can only be explained as “yellow and melon.” Between each blob is a cluster of chalaquita, a popular Peruvian condiment made up of chopped peppers, onions, and cilantro. The yellow stuff in the middle is aji amarillo tiger’s milk, and when mopped together, it’s a culinary explosion of sweet, spice, tang, and fatty tuna—all the makings of a cultural exchange that unfolded between Japan and Peru during the late 19th century.

Héctor Chunga, chef and owner of Lima Nikkei in Walsh Bay and Warike in Surry Hills, describes Nikkei cuisine as an organic amalgamation of Japanese and Peruvian cultures. Although not of Nikkei descent himself, Chunga grew up in Piura in northern Peru, known for its seafood. There are three cuisines in Peru, Chunga explains. 

“There’s the Andes, where alpaca meat and potatoes are staples, the Amazon, where you can get everything from river fish to fruits only found in that jungle, and the coast (where I’m from), where fish, squid, chicken, and beef reign supreme, with plenty of rice,” he adds.

At Chunga’s restaurants, his coastal roots sing in every dish, but so does his Japanese training. After moving his way through some of Peru’s best restaurants, Chunga moved to Japan to cook for high-ranking officials at the Embassy of the Republic of Peru. 

what is nikkei cuisine
Photo: William Billiris

“I have always been interested in the discipline of Japanese methods,” says Chunga. “They respect the product, the method, everything. I almost moved to Europe, but then I got the call for Japan, and it felt right.”

While there, Chunga met a Japanese chef whose mentor, as he explains, “was the first Japanese chef to cook Nikkei cuisine in Peru.” After that, Chunga fell into the world of Nikkei cuisine, which he says was a natural fall given his coastal Peruvian roots. 

Nikkei cuisine’s inception can be traced back to 1889 when around 7,000 Japanese miners and railroad workers were lured to Peru by the promise of Jobs. They cooked Japanese food but with the Peruvian ingredients that were available, birthing this dialogue, if you will, between the two cultures. It’s not a fusion cuisine, as many would describe it. Instead, it seems to be its own type of gastronomy, born from the simplicity and precision of Japanese techniques and fresh seafood of Peru—not to mention the Andean chillies, they’re vital.

Today, it’s speculated there are 90,000 Nikkei people living in Peru, which has dwindled over time. Yet still, Peru has the second largest Japanese population in South America, after Brazil (but that’s for another story). 

Chunga eventually felt the pull of Australia and the culinary prospects it offered. He first moved to Canberra to run a Nikkei restaurant, but Sydney was (still is) in desperate need of a taste of South America, a challenge Chunga was more than happy to take on.

what is nikkei cuisine
Photo: William Billiris

Chunga, along with Luis Guzman and Valeria Finogeeva, opened Warike in a corner spot in Surry Hills in early 2023. Warike (pronounced wa-rique) has two meanings in Quecha, he says. “The ‘Wa’ is unknown or hidden, and the ‘rique’ means stew”—a fitting description of the nondescript white building on a slanted Surry Hills street. Step inside, though, and it feels as if you’ve stepped into a Peruvian home. It’s warm and colourful, with pillows on the bench seats. This is a stark contrast to my first Nikkei experience with Chunga at his other restaurant, Lima (formerly Folklor) in Walsh Bay, where a cloud of pink cherry blossoms looming over the central bar sets the scene of an upscale nightclub, with dark and moody lighting, LED lighting, and murals on the wall.

Folklor was Chunga’s second venture following the success of Warike. However, unlike Warike, Folklor was born from the amalgamation of Chinese and Peruvian culture called Chifa, a cuisine co-owner Luis Guzman grew up on. 

Chifa also emerged in Peru with the arrival of immigrants from the Guangdong region of China at the turn of the 20th century. The cuisine can be described as sweet, sour and smoky, a genetic result of the marriage of Chinese cooking techniques with Peruvian ingredients. 

After a rebrand and refreshed menu, Folklor is now known as Lima Nikkei, with a menu dedicated to introducing diners to Nikkei cuisine and delighting those familiar with it already. However, a sprinkling of Chifa dishes remains on the menu, easily identifiable in the Saltados and Wok section. 

what is nikkei cuisine
Photo: William Billiris

At Warike, the dishes are deeply seated in Nikkei, but European influences also have their moment. “We have Peruvian-Asian, why can’t we have Peruvian-European,” asks Chunga. “Italian, Japanese, Chinese, South African, it doesn’t matter—there’s so much we can do and show people,” he explains. As long as the base is Peruvian, Chunga says anything is possible with these flavours. 

Across the influences and variations of Nikkei and Chifa, one ingredient acts as the glue: aji amarillo. Peruvian chillis are present in just about every Nikkei dish says Chunga, who also explains there are more than 50 varieties of Peruvian chillies, each with their own spice levels and flavours. “It’s not like the chillis we know in Australia.”

Aji amarillo is one of the more common chillis used in Nikkei cuisine, known for its vivid yellow-orange colour and fruity spice flavour. It brings just enough heat to the dish while adding colour, admits Chunga. He uses it in sauces, as a chopped-up garnish or condiment. No matter the variation, be it Peruvian-Chinese or Peruvian-Italian, aji amarillo makes an appearance where it’s needed and wanted. 

Another seemingly veiled Nikkei restaurant hidden in plain sight is Nikkei Bar and Restaurant. The tables are simple wood, with a balanced blend of colour and dark and moody, to take you from day to night. It’s upscale like Warike, but with a more high-design touch, making you feel like you’re in a stylish restaurant rather than someone’s home. The menu is set ($95pp), except between Wednesday and Friday dinners and Saturday lunch, when you can pick from a la carte. 

what is nikkei cuisine
Photo: Bruno Stefani

“Peruvian food is rustic. If you look at recipes online, everything looks the same, says Marco Oshiro, venue manager at Nikkei Bar and Restaurant. “There’s a little bit of rice slapped on the plate, egg…for some reason, that’s how every dish is prepared—with love.”

Oshiro was born in Lima, as were both his parents, but his dad is of Japanese-Peruvian descent—a Nikkei. However, he admits his childhood plates were filled with more Peruvian food than anything. It wasn’t until Oshiro noticed an interest in Peruvian cuisine that he decided to lean into his Nikkei roots. 

“I was still young in hospitality. I didn’t have my ear to the ground on food culture, but I remember seeing one of Peru’s top chefs at the Hilton (where I worked at the time) for an event. Since 2010, 2011…they’ve been saying Peruvian food was going to be the next big thing, and it did happen, eventually,” says Oshiro.

In 2019, Nikkei Bar and Restaurant was sprung to life by the same team that brought us Japanese bar Tokyo Bird, Osaka Trading Co, and Chinatown whiskey bar Banchō. Oshiro mentions, despite his genes, it was one of the Tokyo Bird Owners, Tina Wing Kee, who zeroed in on Nikkei cuisine for the former bodega space they had just acquired. 

what is nikkei cuisine
Photo: Nikkei Restaurant and Bar

“Nikkei cuisine has been around a long time, especially in North American cities like New York, Miami, and parts of Europe, but it’s having a moment in Australia,” explains Oshiro. “It makes sense; Australians are well-versed with Japanese cuisine now; everywhere you go, there’s a Japanese restaurant now, so adding another layer— another flavour just made sense.”

Oshiro points out that Peruvian food has existed in Sydney, but beyond the “mom and pop” shops, only the Peruvian community knew about it; it wasn’t easily accessible or identifiable for that matter. Unlike Mexican foods— nachos, burritos— Peruvian foods are not easy to name off. You need to have either travelled there or have the knowledge of the cuisine to understand what’s in front of you. 

“We’re not inventing anything here; we’ve just made Peruvian-Japanese (Nikkei) look pretty,” says Oshiro. “Growing up, the food my mum made tasted great, but the plating was less than desirable by restaurant standards. We’ve gone and elevated it.,” he says, comparing Nikkei to that of Malaysian food. “A few years ago, we never would have dreamed of paying top dollar for Malaysian food, but now there’s Ho Jiak, plating up presentable Malaysian dishes for a tidy sum, and no one bats an eye.”

As Chunga puts it, “This kind of food is not for parties; it’s for sharing with good people that you love, that you enjoy spending time with.”

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