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Nikkei Now

Nikkei Now
Written by Boyce Upholt | Photos by Mary Beth Koeth

With a James Beard Rising Star nod and hardcore fan base behind them, Miami chefs Val and Nando Chang are shining a light on the Peruvian-Japanese culinary mash-up

In his 2018 single “Sushi Chef,” Miami-based rapper Nando Chang switches deftly between English and Spanish—not an unusual combination in this city of immigrants. Then he drops in references to Japan: wasabi, tataki, Hitachi. To some Americans, the range of languages might seem discordant. Perhaps the sushi is a metaphor—some local hip-hop slang?

Really, though, the song is much more literal, a statement of who Chang is: not just a sushi chef, but a nominee for a James Beard award. The food he makes—Nikkei, it’s called—is not yet familiar to many Americans, nor does it fit neatly into the simple ways we categorize food. But perhaps it’s time for a change.

What is Nikkei? The word itself is Japanese, and translates literally to “Japanese descendants,” referring to the diaspora that have spread around the world, along with their children and grandchildren and further generations. Among the many nations that have embraced them is  Peru, where a small wave arrived in the late nineteenth century to work the nation’s sugar plantations. Many found city life in Lima preferable, running bodegas and barber shops and, eventually, restaurants. At first they served the Creole food that had already been established in the city, melding Spanish and African and indigenous Peruvian traditions. Sometimes they’d offer chifa, Peruvian-Chinese food—dishes like lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry that is fully embedded in the local diet—a culinary tradition that reflected the prevalence of Chinese immigrants in the city. But almost never did these early restaurants apply techniques that would be recognized as Japanese.

These days, there is a second meaning to the word Nikkei. It describes a cuisine that pairs Japanese techniques with Peruvian ingredients. Maido—the most acclaimed restaurant in Peru—is a prime example. Its chef and owner, Mitsuhara Tsumara, affectionately known as Micha, has written a book detailing the history of Nikkei. In it, he describes how at home Japanese immigrants continued their longstanding culinary traditions after they arrived in Peru.

As time wore on, their foodways became more visible on restaurant menus, especially in the form of ceviche. Some Japanese-Peruvian chefs began to serve ceviche nearly raw; rather than letting the fish marinate in acid, they just added a dash of citrus to finish. By the end of the twentieth century, as sushi became a global phenomenon, these chefs increasingly featured overtly Japanese flavors on their menu. In terms of ingredients, though, they remained rooted in the millennia-old traditions of Peru. Tiradito is perhaps the most prominent Nikkei dish: a riff on sashimi, its thin-sliced raw fish is seasoned with lime juice and accompanied with Peruvian ingredients, often ají peppers and sweet potato or corn. Another standard, pulpo al olivo—literally “octopus to olive”—is raw octopus with an olive-inflected aioli.

That dish, served atop a sushi roll of hamachi and avocado, was my introduction to Nikkei, at the suggestion of Nando’s younger sister, Valerie. I had stopped by Itamae, the food hall counter the siblings run with their father in the Design District in Miami. Last year, the Changs became the first brother-sister pair to be nominated for a James Beard Foundation “Rising Star” award, which celebrates outstanding chefs age 30 or younger.

The success of Itamae turned out to be a crest of a now-crashing wave: Over the past few years, many of Miami’s hottest openings have been Peruvian sushi joints. Nikkei restaurants have popped up in other cities—New York, Las Vegas, DC, San Francisco—but Miami remains the one US location where the cuisine is easy to find. One likely reason: The high concentration of Peruvian immigrants means there’s a market already familiar with these flavors. Osaka, a chain of high-end Nikkei restaurants that launched in Lima in 2002 and since has expanded to eleven locations across the globe, opened their first North American location in the city last year.

I interviewed Val one morning last summer as she sliced tuna in preparation for the day’s rush. Fernando Chang, the siblings’ father, is ethnically Chinese; their mother is indigenous Peruvian. Val sometimes meets people who tell her she is exotic. “I’m like, ‘No, there’s a huge group of us in the world who are just like me, and they’re in Peru. They look like me. They talk like me,’” she says. In Peru, where she and Nando were born, Val was surrounded by so many others of Chinese and Japanese descent that she didn’t think of herself as Asian. (Nan- do had a different experience; he insists Val was still young enough when they immigrated to the US that she didn’t see all of Peru’s tensions.)

Their father, Fernando, had owned a shoe store and an ice-cream shop in Chiclayo, a city on Peru’s northern coast. Amid terrorism and economic turmoil in the early 1990s, the businesses closed. In 1994, he came to Miami, where he found a job washing dishes in a sushi restaurant. He scrapped his way upward in the restaurant world, first cooking rice and then slicing vegetables. By the time the kids arrived, in 2001, Chang had already tackled the delicate art of rolling sushi. He found a niche serving kosher sushi to South Florida’s Jewish community. “I think my whole family, we’re quick to learn anything,” Val says, noting that in Peru there was a specific word to describe this quality: “vivo,” which translates literally to “alive.”

 

The kids, too, began to explore new cultures. Nando loved South American rock groups like Soda Stereo, but in the States he began to listen to hip-hop—Tupac, initially—as a portal into American culture. He took up rapping himself, mostly as an outlet for emotions, but was good enough to be signed to Universal Music Group. He told me he may make more music, but he has no desire to tour. He already knows that food is his real passion.

Neither of the Chang siblings had planned a culinary career, but they grew up in their father’s kitchens, and the skills were familiar. They started making money young, and enjoyed the experience. Nando stayed in Miami and focused on sushi. Val, meanwhile, attended Miami Culinary Institute and went on to cook for some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs, including Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Las Vegas; Michael Solomonov at his Miami outpost of Dizengoff; and at Pakta, a Michelin-starred Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona.

In 2014, the family came together at 26 Sushi & Tapas: Fernando helmed the sushi bar while the kids ran the kitchen. Val begin to push Peruvian flavors. The restaurant closed in 2016 amid a feud between the family and an investor. But the next year, the family opened Itamae. In 2019, they expanded into B-Side, a stall in another Miami food hall.

In his book on Nikkei, Micha offers a charming anecdote: A chef finds cut-rate prices at a market for eel, because no one wanted to eat it. The chef, embarrassed, claims he’s buying eel to feed his dog. But the eel tempura he serves to Japanese customers becomes such a hit that other chefs begin to buy eel, too. The fishmonger gets savvy. The price goes up. This is something of a Nikkei parable. Micha—like much of the contemporary media about Nikkei—claims that Peruvian palates broadened thanks to such chefs. Eel and octopus, once scorned, are now embraced.

It’s a useful story, a reminder that the way we eat is always changing. It also may not be true. Peru, as Nando notes, is a poor country. He figures many of the species that Japanese chefs allegedly brought to diners’ attention were likely already eaten along the coast. “It’s not like we were throwing things away,” he says.

What’s more revealing about the story, I think, is its star: the chef. Many American diners expect “ethnic food”—a label that many now consider problematic, a kind of catch-all for anything not white—to be cheap, to be descended from some long peasant tradition, and to be the same thing that humble chefs consume at home. Nikkei resists these expectations. Both Peruvian and Japanese foodways stretch back thousands of years, but have been intertwined for less than a hundred. And much of the melding has been the work of chefs in high-end kitchens.

Does that make it “fusion” food? That label can feel off-putting after the glut of ill-advised mashups in the ’90s and the early 2000s. But Nikkei seems more accidental; this was not an attempt by a restaurateur to cash in on some stylistic bandwagon. It is the result of chefs working within local limitations. It’s a food, Val says, that is still evolving as more people experience it. (And, as Nando points out to me, Peru has plenty of izakayas, Japanese pubs serving simple dishes that can still be considered Nikkei. This is not solely a high-end food.) Perhaps the wildest element in this story is the fact that, despite the long Peruvian roots of Nikkei, the food was not a part of the Chang family’s traditions until they came to the US. Val remembers having parties with her friends where they would watch the Little Mermaid and eat ramen. She ate chifa, too. This was not because of her family’s Chinese heritage, which, after generations in Peru, had been largely forgotten. “We ate like Peruvians,” Nando told me—and Peruvians ate Chinese food.

The first time Val remembers eating sushi was as a celebratory meal, after the siblings completed their interview at the US Embassy in Lima. (Nando, meanwhile, says he ate McDonald’s that day.) By then, their father had already begun his journey to become an itamae, which is the Japanese word for chef. (It means, literally, “in front of the board.”) But had his first Florida job not been washing dishes in a sushi restaurant, they all might have followed a different path. What is most powerful to me about Nikkei is the portrait it offers of our intertangled world. Val and Nando are at once Chinese and indigenous, Peruvian and American; their food combines the ancient flavors of their home country with techniques that emerged a hemisphere away. We call the region they live in now the American South, but to get here, they and their ancestors traveled first east and then north. As Nikkei takes hold in Miami—and, as seems likely to me, across the country, given the appeal of its bright, fresh flavors—it can help us reimagine our place in this world.