Japan holds its own among Asia’s best


Special To The Japan Times

A day before Asia’s 50 Best 2015 awards ceremony earlier this month, chef Mitsuharu Tsumura (affectionately known as Micha) was up and about making ceviche, a cured seafood dish, at a Peruvian ceviche master class.

The Peru-born Japanese chef was in Singapore with members of the Tiger’s Milk Gang from Peru — chefs Virgilio Martinez of Central (No. 1 on Latin America’s 50 Best), Gaston Acurio of Astrid y Gaston (No. 2 on Latin America’s 50 Best) and Rafael Piqueras of Maras.

Assembled by Acurio, the Tiger’s Milk Gang is named for the marinade used to cure seafood in a ceviche. Just a day before, the team of four was speaking at a summit about how they have been globe-trotting to preach the Peruvian culture and gastronomy through their national dish of ceviche.

Among the sea of ceviche served at the demonstration to 35 guests, Micha’s Nikkei-style ceviche stood out for the prominence of Japanese ingredients. Seafood flash-marinated in lime was served rare in a tiger’s milk preparation that incorporated Peruvian aji pepper (yellow chilli) as well as Japanese dashi and ponzu (citrus-based sauce).

“Nikkei cuisine refers to Japanese food with Peruvian influences or vice versa,” says Micha, who cut his teeth in Osaka from 2002 to 2003 and spent the following six years working in a hotel in Peru’s capital of Lima.

At his restaurant, Maido, in Lima’s Miraflores district, the menu features dishes such as a 50-hour braised wagyu short rib in a netsuke (shoyu, mirin, sake, dashi) sauce, a Japanese twist on a classic Peruvian stew; as well as maki sushi roll doused in tiger’s milk, a Japanese dish laced with an unmistakable Peruvian influence.

But while Nikkei cuisine may still be growing on the world stage, it is hardly new. According to Micha, it all started in 1889 when thousands of Japanese workers descended in Peru for contract work and stayed on to start businesses — including catering — serving Peruvians. Little by little, the Japanese started tweaking recipes, replacing meats with fish and octopus, and adding Japanese techniques to Peruvian classics.

Over time, as the Japanese population in Peru increased due to the influx of Japanese multinationals, the demand for the cuisine swelled.

Japanese chefs — such as Nobu Matsuhisa, an early Nikkei pioneer who stayed in Peru in the 1970s — began weaving Peruvian ingredients such as potato and yellow pepper into their improvised Japanese cuisine as many Japanese ingredients were unavailable locally. Today, chef siblings Ferran and Albert Adria are proudly flying the Nikkei flag at Pakta, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant that opened in Barcelona in 2013. But the biggest turning point for the cuisine was in 2009, when Maido quietly debuted in Lima. With it, a global ambassador of Nikkei cuisine was born.

Micha, though, is not the only Japanese making waves. Amid the hubbub of fist pumps, hugs and congratulatory kanpai (cheers) from peers, chef Yoshihiro Narisawa was basking in the limelight once again.

His eponymous Tokyo restaurant, Narisawa, had been named Best Restaurant in Japan for the third-consecutive year at the Asia’s 50 Best awards, an Asian offshoot of the influential World’s 50 Best Awards, now in its third edition.

“There are so many talented chefs in the world as well as in Asia,” says Narisawa modestly. “While I am honored with my placing, this is a listing exercise and not about winning or losing.”

Retaining his No. 2 spot on the list, Narisawa’s triumph was shared by his compatriots. Tokyo-based chef Hidemi Sugino clinched the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef while chef Hajime Yoneda secured the Highest Climber Award after his eponymous restaurant Hajime, in Osaka, rose 28 places to No. 14. Outside Japan, Hong Kong-based Hideaki Sato of Tenku Ryugin (No. 24) registered a remarkable 26-spot leap and in Singapore, the feted chef of Waku Ghin (No. 9), Tetsuya Wakuda, received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I am encouraged,” says Wakuda with a thankful and heartwarming smile. “I want to continue cooking and be inspired by other great chefs.”

Although Japan no longer leads Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants with only eight entries this year (Singapore is leading with 10 entries), it was still a glorious moment for Japanese chefs.

Like Hajime, chefs Seiji Yamamoto of Nihonryori RyuGin (No. 5), Shinobu Namae of L’Effervescence (No. 25) and Yoshiaki Takazawa of Takazawa (No. 34) climbed in their overall rankings for Asia.

During the awards ceremony, organizer William Reed Business Media also announced that Asia’s 50 Best 2015 was now the result of a regional vote rather than the same global vote that created The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Unlike its previous two editions, there was now a separate vote for Asia’s 50 Best with more than 300 voters — including “foodies,” chefs, writers and restaurateurs — based in Asia. “I am excited that two new countries — Cambodia and The Philippines — joined the list this year,” says William Drew, editor of William Reed Business Media. “Now, we have a diversity of different cuisines from an array of Asian cities sitting side by side.”