Japan and Peru may seem to have little in common, but as Peruvian cuisine has gained global recognition this year, chefs with roots in the South American country are serving up meals to treat Japanese taste buds with a side of history.

With the two countries celebrating 150 years of diplomatic relations in 2023, restauranteurs and members of the Peruvian-Japanese community are also reflecting on how their culinary traditions have evolved through intercultural exchange.

Haruo Kawasaki was just 5 when he moved with his family from Peru's capital Lima to Kanagawa Prefecture, neighboring Tokyo.

Now 38, Kawasaki opened a Peruvian restaurant in July with his 36-year-old wife, Rumi Tokuda. Both are Nikkeijin, or people of Japanese heritage born overseas.

Photo taken on Nov. 24, 2023, shows chef and owner of Rey Peruvian restaurant Haruo Kawasaki (R) and wife Rumi Tokuda in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Kyodo)

Named Rey, meaning "king" in Spanish, the restaurant in the busy Musashi Kosugi area of Kawasaki has proven a hit with the locals, most of whom are new to Peruvian food.

"We want to offer Peruvian cuisine with Japanese style," Kawasaki said, saying that what sets Rey apart from its peers is its firm rooting in Japanese culture.

Rey boasts a seasonal menu, which can include ceviche, Peru's iconic national dish of raw fish. Ceviche is traditionally marinated in lime, "but at Rey, it is instead prepared with yuzu," Tokuda says.

Ceviche's origins are contested, although Tokuda claims that the dish evolved from sashimi preparation techniques brought by Japanese migrants to Peru.

Other dishes at Rey include anticucho meat skewers, usually prepared with a sauce of Peruvian aji chillies, but instead reimagined with Japanese green bell peppers. The restaurant also offers Japanese sake pairings with Peruvian-inspired meals.

"The essence of Peruvian food is the gradual blending of delicious elements from different places," Kawasaki said, adding that due to its rich history, the country's cooking has influences from indigenous, European, Asian, and African cultures.

Peru has become known as a gourmet powerhouse among food connoisseurs, voted in the World Travel Awards as the "World's Leading Culinary Destination" in 2023, with Lima's Central, located in the Miraflores district, ranking No. 1 on the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list.

Peru was the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic ties with Japan on Aug. 21, 1873. Soon after, lured by promising work opportunities, the first Japanese laborers and their families sailed across the Pacific Ocean to the country.

In November, to mark the 150th anniversary, Japan's Princess Kako, niece of Emperor Naruhito, made an official visit to Peru to commemorate the occasion and met with members of the over 200,000 strong Nikkeijin community.

But while many Nikkeijin have fully integrated into Peruvian society, more recent historical events saw some descendants of Japanese immigrants return to Japan.

In 1989, amid the country's asset price "bubble economy," the Japanese government decided to amend its Immigrant Control Act to allow second- and third-generation Nikkeijin in South America to obtain residential status with no working restrictions.

Supplied photo taken on Aug. 13, 2023, shows Emiko Nakamine at the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Emiko Nakamine)(Kyodo)

Political instability at the time in Peru as well as the prospect of earning money in Japan's then-booming economy sparked a wave of reverse migration to the Asian country.

Emiko Nakamine's family is one of many sharing such a story. The 29-year-old's parents moved from Peru in 1990 with the intention of staying only temporarily but chose to remain once she and her younger brother were born.

But Nakamine, a third-generation Nikkeijin on her father's side and a naturalized Japanese citizen, says she has been "blessed" by her identity and growing up between two cultures and food traditions.

Nakamine said that Peruvian food overwhelmingly made her think of her mother's cooking.

"No matter where I go to eat it, I always associate it with my mother's flavors," she said, despite moving far away from home in Saitama Prefecture, neighboring Tokyo, to Australia earlier this year.

As of June this year, there were over 49,000 Peruvian nationals residing in Japan, making up the 12th largest group of foreign residents, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.

Peruvians were also the sixth largest group that naturalized as Japanese citizens between 2020 and 2022, according to the Justice Ministry.

Some, such as Bruno Nakandakari, 49, have been working to share Peruvian cuisine with Tokyoites for the better part of 10 years.

As chef- and co-owner of Bepocah, located in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district, Nakandakari is a third-generation Nikkeijin who came to Japan at just 17 in hopes of earning money to send back to his family.

Supplied photo shows Bruno Nakandakari, chef- and co-owner of Bepocah Peruvian restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya. (Photo courtesy of Bepocah)(Kyodo)

But with ongoing political strife in Peru, he chose to remain and later decided to open a restaurant himself amid a lack of good food options similar to those available back home.

Bepocah serves traditional Peruvian fare, "but we give it our personal touch," Nakandakari said, adding that they are very concerned with the quality of products used.

Nakandakari said Japanese people are very curious about food from other countries, and that his customers enjoy Peruvian cuisine's use of fresh ingredients, superfoods such as quinoa, as well as its colorful and interesting presentation.

Supplied photo shows Peruvian dish causa rellena at Bepocah Peruvian restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya. (Photo courtesy of Bepocah)(Kyodo)

Peruvians have long known their food is good, but the accolade won by Central is not the only sign that the cuisine is gaining increasing international recognition.

In December, ceviche was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Tokyoites can also taste the vision of Central chef and director Virgilio Martinez since he opened Peruvian restaurant Maz in the capital last year.

Nakandakari, meanwhile, says he is a product of Japan and Peru's shared history, which has also resulted in so-called "Nikkei cuisine."

Nakandakari says that while Nikkei cuisine is somewhat difficult to define, what is important is that it represents Nikkeijin culture, and is not simply a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cooking.

"It's always evolving, and each generation wants to leave its mark," he said. "Anybody can mix two things together, but I believe the identity aspect makes it more valuable."

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