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Micha, the king of Nikkei

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Mitsuharu Tsumura speaks to Nicholas Gilman about closing his award-winning Lima restaurant Maido and his plans to explore uncharted culinary territory

Mitsuharu Tsumura is riding high. He is Peru’s top Nikkei chef and along with fellow chefs Gastón Acurio and Virgilio Martinez, has put Peru on the world gastronomic stage. They’ve turned the sleepy South American nation into a foodie destination and influenced the way people think about their country’s cuisine and culture. But Micha, as he is familiarly known, wants to go further. He plans to close Maido, his lauded Lima venue, in 2021 in order to be free to explore uncharted territory. We chatted on the eve of his rise to number seven on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, his fourth year to be included.

Nikkei evolves

Micha is Peruvian, of Japanese descent, part of the migration of Japanese to Peru that began around the turn of the 20th century. He speaks Spanish, Japanese and English.

Nikkei, a word that generally refers to a person of Japanese origin living abroad, has been adopted as the name for Japanese/Peruvian people and their cooking. Nikkei cuisine is Peru’s unique contribution to world gastronomy. The chef explains a bit about this mix of Japanese and Peruvian cooking, but he bristles at the term fusion. “I hate that word, you know, ‘fusion-confusion’ and all that. The Japanese immigration to Peru began 120 years ago and the cuisine grew naturally. It was never anything planned or forced.”

His grandmother, from the Osaka area of Japan, taught the family’s beloved Peruvian cook Maura how to incorporate into her food basic Japanese ingredients such as miso, soya, tofu and natto. “But in my house, dinner was divided – my father, born in Japan, would eat purely Japanese food, such as ramen and sushi, while we ate traditional Peruvian dishes like ají de gallina, (a creamy chicken stew), or more often Nikkei things like ceviche and sushi.”

Interested in cooking from an early age, he “watched and learned from Maura, who would prepare such criollo classics as seco con frejoles, (beef with beans) arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) and adobo de cerdo (pork in chili sauce).” Micha was encouraged by his parents to enroll in a culinary program, long before the gastronomic boom.

“At first I saw it as a hobby, but they encouraged me to take it seriously.” However, there was no place to take his studies further in Peru, so at 17 he ended up in a program of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, always intending to return home. He absorbed new ideas from his stint in the US, and later traveled to Osaka, Japan to hone his technical skills, learning to cut fish from the masters. He points out: “I even have some dishes on my menu that are an homage to the US – the hot dog for example.” Returning to Peru, he worked for a while at the Sheraton, then, again with the support of his father, opened his own place – Maido.

Criollo – Peruvian traditional cooking – had evolved from a blend of indigenous dishes and influences of the Spanish. The colonialists introduced ingredients like pork, chicken, olives and olive oil, and new techniques such as grilling, frying and preserving. They incorporated into their diet native potatoes, corn, quinoa, chilies, and many local fish and animals such as guinea pig and llama. Later, Japanese and Chinese immigrants would take advantage of foods Peruvians didn’t want. “No one in Peru 50 years ago ate octopus, or much shellfish,” Micha says. “The fishermen would throw these away, and the Japanese would go and pick them up.”

Peruvian ceviche is now known as a major contribution to world gastronomy, but it was the Japanese who opened the first cebicherías in the country. “This is due to the Nikkei technique of careful cutting and adding acid at the last moment, perhaps with a bit of ginger, seaweed or other Asian flavoring,” Micha explains.

“Peruvian and Japanese cuisines complement each other.” Peru is the only Latin American country where fish is the predominant source of protein and, as in Asia, rice is commonly eaten. But for decades, though the seeds of this fusion were planted, the cuisine remained in the homes of the Nikkei community—the average Peruvian was not exposed to their way of eating.

It took Minoru Kunigami, credited with opening Lima’s first Nikkei cebichería La Buena Muerte in the early 1960s, to bring focus and dignity to their way of cooking. And that is Micha’s mission as well. “My goal was always to let people know that this Peruvian/Japanese cuisine is something real, not just a trend,” he says. “It was something built over many years. I was born and raised with this cuisine. Now it’s been taken to other levels, using Peruvian ingredients, Japanese techniques and flavors.”

Becoming more Peruvian

Micha’s restaurant Maido (the name means “welcome” in Japanese) has put the word “Nikkei” on everybody’s lips. Micha opened Maido , in 2009 when he was still in his late twenties. At first the menu was as divided as food had been in his family.
“I think we’ve evolved a lot. Looking at pictures of food I made 10 years ago it’s much more classic Japanese,” he says. “As the years have passed I’ve become more Peruvian. People tell me: ‘I used to come here and order from a Japanese menu and a Nikkei menu.’ I don’t have a Japanese menu any more. Now I only do Nikkei – that’s the heart of the restaurant. We’ve been ‘Peruvianizing’ every year.”

His kitchen is divided in two. One part is a traditional hardwood sushi counter, open to the dining room, where sashimi, ceviche and tiraditos (like sashimi, but dressed with a drizzle of lime and perhaps chili and herbs) are prepared. Then there’s the hot kitchen inside, traditional European style. “We don’t have a chef de cuisine for both kitchens. In terms of operations, techniques and knowledge it’s two different chefs. One specializes in sushi, sashimi, ceviche, whatever creative thing we do with that kind of food – cold preparation. The other does broths for ramen, stews, and roast meats using standard European techniques and equipment.”

Maido’s tasting menu of 15 courses might include a ceviche – the Nikkei’s essential addition to the world gastronomy – made with exotic fish from the Amazon dressed with leche de tigre (tiger’s milk, the traditional chili, lime and fish marinade perfumed with ponzu), followed by a gyoza (dumpling) stuffed with cuy (guinea pig) whose delicate rabbit-like meat is common throughout the region, then a pork ramen with yucca and cocona (a jungle fruit). This dinner is a journey through Peru from the Andes to the Amazon. But the flavors of Japan are always present.

Life after Maido

Now the chef feels he has taken Maido as far as it can go, and wants to end on a high note. He plans to open smaller, more specific restaurants in Peru and abroad. “I want places that specialize in one operation rather than doing a creative concept in one place. I want to do a Nikkei tavern, a Nikkei Peruvian barbecue restaurant, Peruvian/Japanese tapas, izakaya style, Peruvian sandwiches, pollos a la brasa (grilled chicken). There are so many popular styles to explore and refine. I think Maido’s cuisine can survive in different concepts, places that are more affordable and casual. People are ready for that.”

The chef continues: “I want to find the perfect blend of tradition and innovation, bringing food from the regions of Peru and working more with Amazonian products. The future is restaurants specializing in the many cuisines of Peru.”

The future

“In the beginning, doing what I do was like swimming upriver. Peru was a conservative place. It was difficult to learn and just as hard to teach people – and cooks – to be more open to innovative cooking. Now we have more information, technology, schools. To be a chef is a sacrificing job. I know many people who decide to become chefs or study at the Culinary Institute because that’s the easiest way to a career, but it’s more difficult than people think,” he says.

“For the new generation it’s easier to get the knowledge, but it’s directly in proportion to the passion people have for it. So you’re 17 years old and you want to become a chef. I ask: ‘Who do you admire in the culinary world? How many times have you cooked at home?’ And they don’t know what to answer. They have to know about local ingredients of Peru, about their origin, about the ecosystem. Because if you like cooking it should be like football
– you follow it, you know who’s playing, who’s winning, the trends. Those are all the things you have to evaluate to become a chef.”

Micha remains passionate about his country and will continue to promote the diffusion of its many cultures and ways of eating.

“My mission is to take not only Nikkei cooking out of Peru, but also to show the Peruvian side; that’s the important part,” he says. “We have so much more than people know. Taking it to the world is what is really important for me.”

Nicholas Gilman