Photo collage featuring Tiradito, ceviche, and lomo saltado with the flags of Japan and Peru in the background

Stir Fried: The delicious role Japan has played in Peruvian cuisine

In this new monthly column, writer Clara Wang dives into Asian diasporic stories through fusion food; first up: Japanese Peruvian dishes

Tiradito, ceviche, and lomo saltado are classic examples of Nikkei food.

Photo illustration by Ryan Quan

Words by Clara Wang

Stir Fried: The story of any immigrant diaspora is the story of how outsiders became insiders, and nothing tells this story better than food. Names may get scrambled, languages forgotten, neighborhoods gentrified—but no matter how muddled histories become, the truth is served on a plate. Stir Fried breaks down the weird, messy, bastardized fusion cuisines that tell the story of Asian diaspora communities around the world.

If you’ve reveled in the savory umami of lomo saltado or been delighted by the bright, tender seafood in a plate of ceviche, you already know Japanese-Peruvian, or Nikkei, cuisine. It’s been featured on travel series like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Netflix’s Street Food Latin America. If you live in a major U.S. city, it’s likely you’ve heard about itNew York’s trendy Llama San, Chotto Matte in San Francisco, Itamae in Miami—and chef Micha Tsumura’s Maido in Lima consistently tops World’s Best Restaurants compilations. The founder of famed global enterprise Nobu, Japanese-born chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, has built a global brand through finessing Japanese-Peruvian seafood. The exacting techniques and vibrant ingredients is a contemporary match made in heaven, but the story of how Japanese and Peruvian food became inexplicably intertwined is a bit more complicated.

What Is Nikkei food?

A plate of Peruvian ceviche.

Peru's national dish, ceviche, is an example of Nikkei food—Indigenous ingredients with a Japanese approach.

Courtesy of Susana Vivanco

Nikkei food is defined by a Japanese approach to uniquely Peruvian ingredients, most famously seen in the preparation of seafood. The most prominent example of Japanese influence on Peruvian food is Peru’s national dish, ceviche. Indigenous peoples in the region have been eating “ceviche” for thousands of years, but historically they “cured” it for hours in chica (an Andean fermented corn beverage) or tumbo (a kind of Peruvian passionfruit). Spanish colonization brought lime, and then the Japanese began to immediately plate fresh seafood, turning ceviche from a fisherman’s way of dealing with leftovers to a delicacy in its own right.

When Susana Vivanco, chef and owner of Lima Criolla in Austin, Texas, was growing up in Lima, they would throw away any ceviche that had been marinated for more than an hour. “At Lima Criolla we do ceviche like how the Japanese would do it, everything fresh, everything made to order,” she says. Vivanco, who moved to Austin in 2006, serves a traditional Peruvian menu that reflects the food she misses from home. One Lima staple that encapsulates coastal Japanese-Peruvian fusion is Tiradito, a ceviche made from thinly sliced tilapia marinated in ají amarillo and lime. The origins of Tiradito are murky, but the name may come from how the fish is sliced so thinly it appears to be stretched, or “estiradito,” across the plate. Another is pulpo al olivo, octopus crudo (a monthly special). “The Japanese introduced us to eating octopus…but there aren’t any other Japanese ingredients in the dish,” says Vivanco.

Japanese and Chinese influence can also be found in lomo saltado, tender pieces of steak wok-tossed in soy sauce and served with rice, and the ginger often used in Peruvian leche de tigre. “Something really amazing happened in Peru with different eras in immigration,” says Vivanco. “Every wave of immigrants fused into our cuisine. We get our beans and anticuchos from the African immigrants, we got the pastries from Italians…raw seafood from the Japanese.”

A Latino man and woman sit at a restaurant table, with plates of food in front of them and a colorful mural in the background.

From left, Susana Vivanco her husband Antonio.

Courtesy of Susana Vivanco

From contract laborers to urban business owners

When the Japanese first immigrated en masse to Peru in the 1800s seeking to make their fortunes in the New World and send money home to their families, they brought pantry staples like miso and shoyu in their suitcases. In search of cheap labor, Peru became the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic relations with Japan in 1873, opening the country’s gates for a stream of contract laborers to work the lush plantations and dangerous mines, where a man’s fortune could be lost or made in a day but contract laborers toiled for pennies on the dollar. With Japan in the throes of economic turmoil, more Japanese immigrants poured in after the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which barred legal entry to the United States and Hawai’i. Immigrants from Okinawa, Gifu, Kanagawa, Hiroshima, and Osaka completed their contracts, settled in cities, and started their own businesses. Around this time is also when cevicherias began springing up around Limamany of which were Japanese-owned. 

Height of discrimination and WWII

By 1940, as the world teetered on the brink of WWII, there were about 30,000 Japanese living in Peru. The Japanese community’s success, and practice of mostly hiring relatives and friends within the community, increasingly made them the target of resentment. In 1932, Sancho Cerro’s regime required businesses owned by foreigners to employ 80 percent Peruvian nationals. The idea of “Japanese infiltration” was spread by the media, anti-immigration laws were passed, and Japanese immigrants were no longer able to obtain Peruvian nationality. Direct attacks on Japanese commerce increased, and there were a series of lootings in 1940 that resulted in 200 injured, 10 killed, and 620 families losing their property.

Then the other half of the world began warring, and despite being in a different hemisphere, the Japanese in Peru still caught some shrapnel. With tensions at an all-time high, Peru deported 1,429 people to camps in the United Statesmore than any other Latin American country, though Brazil and Argentina also had large Japanese emigrant (Nikkei) populations.

A Peruvian-Japanese president—spoiled fish, rotten politics

Things slowly turned around for the Nikkei after WWII. In a similar fashion to what was happening in the United States, they marketed themselves as model minorities, buoyed by Japan’s economic boom in the 1980’s and Westernization through the latter half of the 20th Century. However, the devastation of WWII-era discrimination shaped the Nikkei community in two profound ways: It forced them to assimilate as model minorities who kept a relatively low profile to avoid inciting attacks, and also paradoxically increased insularity by legitimizing inter-community difference. One Japanese-Peruvian community leader interviewed by sociologist Ayumi Takenaka noted how “in a community-sponsored essay contest for children in 1990 titled ‘About My Grandparents,’ virtually every Japanese-Peruvian child wrote about the riot.”

The devastation of WWII-era discrimination shaped the Nikkei community in two profound ways: It forced them to assimilate as model minorities who kept a relatively low profile to avoid inciting attacks, and also paradoxically increased insularity by legitimizing inter-community difference.

The middleman minority status of educated, stable, and financially successful formed the platform that Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s prime minister (and first non-white presidential candidate) from 1990 to 2000, ran on. Unfortunately, Fujimori also initiated a series of economic policies that plundered the poor, staged a self-administered coup, and attempted to install himself as dictator through various unethical tactics before being sentenced to prison for charges that included wiretapping, death squads, kidnapping, and funneling state money.

He also famously (in a very un-Japanese move considering his motherland’s reverence for quality fish) encouraged Peruvians to continue eating raw fish (to promote the economy!) despite being in the midst of a cholera epidemic caused by spoiled fish, where 55,000 Peruvians succumbed to the disease and 258 died. Fearing a repeat performance of the riots that defined their grandparents’ generation, thousands of Nikkei fled to Japan in a reverse migration under Japan’s 1990’ dekasegi policy, which allowed people of Japanese descent, up to three generations, to stay as permanent residents. 

Full Circle: International gastro-diplomacy catapults Nikkei food to elite stages

Today, the food that came out of Japanese-Peruvians carving out pieces of home is celebrated around the world. Part of this trend comes from the “upscale” factor of Japanese food, which is strongly associated with expensive seafood and high-end dining. (Example: In an interview with Lifestyle Asia, Peruvian chef Juan Alfonso Urrutia, who serves Nikkei seafood at acclaimed restaurant Osaka, noted that Nikkei’s versatility is more appealing to international diners than "pure" Peruvian cuisine.)

Part of this trend is because it’s the perfect “fusion” cuisine, in an age where Asian cuisine in the West has finally come into maturity all across the country. The globalization of Nikkei food became a way for Peru to bridge a cultural gap to the world at large, and in some ways smooth over the repatriation of its Japanese citizens.

The story of Japanese-Peruvian food, like so many immigrant groups, should be a story of outsiders becoming insiders. An immigrant group lands, establishes themselves, experiences some initial xenophobia and pushback, and then slowly builds into the community until they are another ingredient in the diverse stir-fry of a country layered in waves of newcomers who eventually become absorbed into its cultural landscape. For the Japanese in Peru, however, the path has been a more dynamic push-pull than that of other diasporas due to the Nikkei’s distinct communal solidarity that was reinforced by the fear sowed through the 1940 riots. Chinese-Mexicans and Vietnamese-Texans, for example, never moved back en masse to their mother countries, even when their respective economies began to thrive. This dramatic ebb-and-flow of acceptance has come full-circle with their food being a way for Peru to brand themselves on the world stage. In the end, Nikkei food’s ability to penetrate the global market stems from the “upscale” factor of Japanese food. Which is ironically the very thingbusiness successthat condemned them to WWII camps in the first place.

Published on June 5, 2024

Words by Clara Wang

Clara Wang is a freelance writer spending the year in Nashville who mostly muses about food, culture, sex, and the unbearable lightness of being a 5’0” Yellow girl quicker on her feet than Borat’s lawyers. Her work has been featured in publications such as Eater Austin, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Daily Dot, and Giddy.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.