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Why Nikkei cuisine is the new cool

Two new restaurants have introduced Nikkei cuisine—a blend of Peruvian ingredients and Japanese cooking techniques

A corn ceviche
A corn ceviche

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It could have been a mango chaat, but it wasn’t. It was mango ceviche at the new restaurant, Koishii, in St Regis Mumbai. There were two types of mangoes: apple mango, imported from Africa, and a ripe Indian Alphonso, paired with thick coconut milk, spiced with peppers, topped with quinoa puffs and onion tempura. The sweet and sour flavours, combined with creamy and crunchy textures, were akin to a chaat.

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It is a best-seller at the two-month-old restaurant specialising in Nikkei cuisine. The concept is new to the city and perhaps the rest of the country, but in gourmet capitals such as Dubai and London, Nikkei restaurants are the new cool. This technique-forward and ingredient-focused cuisine, a blend of Peruvian and Japanese cooking, may currently belong to the world of premium dining, but it was born in Peru about a century ago when immigrants from the island nation settled in the South American country in search of better livelihoods. The Japanese brought in the fine technique of cutting raw fish, while Peruvian lime, chillies and peppers made for the perfect marinade—a fine example of how recipes travel and new cuisines are born.

Peru’s long Pacific Ocean coastline ensures an ample supply of seafood. “Years ago, before the Japanese arrived, fish would be marinated in the morning to be readied for lunch. It was a time-consuming process. When the Japanese arrived, they introduced the à la minute technique where raw fish, marinated with a dash of Peruvian spices and lime, would be ready to eat in no time,” explains Peruvian chef Kinto Rodas Tristan, masterchef at Koishii.

Nikkei, informally described as a “fusion” of both cuisines though it has developed over generations, entered the world of gourmet dining at the turn of the 21st century. Now it is making its way into India, with another restaurant, Soy Como Soy, opening in the commercial hub of Kalyani Nagar in Pune, Maharashtra. In Mumbai, the Asian restaurant Dashanzi at JW Marriott Juhu recently had a Nikkei pop-up. Soy Como Soy, which imports most ingredients but uses locally sourced quinoa, substitutes Peruvian lime with gondhoraj lime and experiments with Indian tilapia, is also planning pop-ups with Peruvian chefs.

Essentially, Nikkei uses Japanese cooking techniques and Peruvian ingredients like different types of quinoa, ají amarillo (yellow chilli pepper) and corn chulpe (puffed corn). From steamed and puffed to roasted, quinoa is used in different forms. Avocados and several varieties of potatoes are integral to the food. The signature dishes include ceviche, tiradito (raw fish presented like sashimi in a sauce) and robata cooked meats or robatayaki, Japanese-style barbecue.

Ceviche—raw fish marinated in lime and spices—is synonymous with Nikkei. “The national dish of Peru is ceviche and it’s emblematic of this cuisine,” points out Tristan.There are roughly three elements in the Peruvian ceviche: raw fish, from seabass and prawns to octopus; a tart lime dressing or marinade; and a crunchy element, such as corn, to add texture and carbs. It was the Japanese who introduced the fine craft of slicing raw fish like sashimi and adding ingredients such as soy sauce and sesame oil in ceviche.

While seafood is central to ceviche, there are vegetarian options for Indians, like the mango version. The not-so-secret sauce in these dishes is the Peruvian dressing leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). Made with Peruvian green lime juice and chillies, it has a distinct sour taste.

These are ingredients familiar to the Indian palate, just like certain elements of Japanese food, such as miso, togarashi (spice mixture) and sushi, are. Tristan pairs these with the Latin American sauce chimichurri.

Since the mango ceviche reminded me of chaat, I wonder if ceviche is served as street food in Peru. It isn’t, responds Tristan. It needs to be cooked slightly if it is to last longer. “It is the upwardly mobile who can afford super-fresh raw fish in ceviches,” he shares.

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When restaurateurs open new places, they study global trends to determine the future of cuisine, says Sandy Singh, co-founder of Soy Como Soy, Iceberg Hospitality. “We had an Asian restaurant, Kinki, in Pune, and seeing the response we got from diners, we knew that in the restaurant space, after Indian food—earlier, it was Italian—people prefer Asian food.” During the lockdown, however, Singh’s lawyer wife started experimenting with Nikkei dishes at home and launched a delivery kitchen, Pali Cartel Menu. The response was positive. Combining this with the learnings from his now-shuttered Asian restaurant and cues from global trends, Singh knew his next venture would be a place serving Nikkei dishes.

“It’s a friendly cuisine,” says Singh, “and you get the best of both worlds.”

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