Kitchen Pro Files: Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, Master of Nikkei Cuisine

Combining his Japanese and Peruvian heritage, Lima-born Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura last month gave diners at Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila, a one of a kind Nikkei culinary experience. "Since it's the first time in Manila and many people don't really know about Peruvian food, we are going to do both creative as well as traditional," Chef Tsumura or "Micha," shares. "What I'm trying to do is to show the flavors of Peru, and the flavors of Nikkei. That's why we call it in the book, the third reality. One reality is Peru, the other reality is Japan, and the third reality is Nikkei."

Chef Micha's book Nikkei is Peru explains how the Nikkei culture and cuisine emerged in Peru -- how Japanese food and technique marries with the Peruvian culture. The celebrity chef has had television appearances in Peru, including being judge on MasterChef. His brief visit in Manila has allowed the local palate to experience Peru and Nikkei at Samba, the new poolside restaurant of Shangri-La at the Fort that showcases South American favorites.

Read the highlights of the exclusive interview with the man behind Maido -- #2 in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2016, and 13th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura

Question: When you were growing up, was there someone in the family that influenced you to cook?

Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura: My mother and my father, they have a company, they have a travel agency, so they were really busy since I was a kid. They left home very early and they came back home really late. So there was a lady, a grandmother from the side of my mom. My grandmother I didn't get to know her since she passed away, but from what I hear from everybody, she used to work with a lady that helped her to cook. That lady left to do a restaurant for a long time, and when I was ten or eight she called my mom one day and she said, "Hey, can I work with you again?" Because my mom needed someone to help her to cook, because she didn't have time.

So she came once a week every Saturday. On Saturdays, I didn't have school, and she came at 8:30, 9 in the morning. Mostly she cooked typical Peruvian food, food made of stews. She made those stews and froze them to keep it, so she cooked for the whole week in one day. Probably after a couple of months, she was in my house cooking. I always got hungry in the morning because when you start cooking in Peru, as in many countries, you start frying onions, and that smell went into my room--so that was my alarm clock. I was dreaming and I started so smell it, and I got hungry. So I went into the kitchen then ate next to her cooking.

And one day I was eating and watching her cook, I said, "Can I help you?" And she said, "Yeah sure, come over." I remember she was taking out the cilantro leaves to make rice with chicken. We do a green rice. And I started helping her with the cilantro and then I started helping with the leaves; sometimes the beans from the market, picking the stones from the beans. Little by little, I started to cook. That was my first contact with food.

Do you still remember the first thing you cooked?

Actually, the first dish I cooked were cookies! And that was because I started watching a TV program -- the only TV program at that time that was on local TV from a lady called Teresa Ocampo. She's still alive, she's around 87 years old, 88? She lives in the States right now. She's a very famous chef at that time when no one wanted to be a chef. And mostly she made desserts. One day, she made cookies. I wrote the recipe and I baked the cookies. Even though I'm not into pastry, that was the first thing I made. They were simple butter cookies.

Can you share a favorite food memory from your childhood?

I remember my aunt when we were like 5, 6 years old. The family, we go together in my house, and everybody brought something. And she always brought two things. Chicken wings, which she put some five spice. She actually was Chinese-Peruvian. She was married to my mom's brother; she passed away really young, 47. And she did this Peruvian-Chinese chicken wings. She marinated them in soy sauce, ginger, five spice, potato flour... deep fried it, and she made a chili sauce that was, wow. Incredible! So she brought the chili sauce. The wings were already fried, we ate them cold! And we dip them in the sauce, with aji amarillo. She made croquettes, but different style croquettes--potatoes with ground beef. In Japan they sell it in the streets--korokke. Right? So it's Japanese style korokke with panko, so she made that and she made the wings. Good memory from my childhood.

At what age did you realize you wanted to pursue cooking seriously, make it into a career or open your own restaurant?

Actually, around 15. But it was not because of me, actually. For many other people, sometimes, many friends of mine from Peru, they tell me that when they told their parents that they wanted to become cooks, their parents said, "No way, you're not gonna become a cook." It wasn't a career. Because at that time being a chef, being a cook, was not well-seen.

But in my case, my father's from Japan and my mom is Peruvian-Japanese, and every week I'd start reheating their food for dinner after coming from school. Or during the weekends, I worked with Maura -- that's the name of the lady that cooked on Saturdays. My friends would come over, then I did some barbecue. So at 15, 16, my parents started asking, you want to do the test to see if I was good in things like math, and other skills. And I was really young, thinking probably more of like partying and not focused on what my career was...but I loved to cook.

So I sometimes rather than go play futbol or go to the cinema, I stay home and cook for my friends and my family. So my dad noticed that. So he said, "So what do you want to do when you graduate?" He's Japanese, you know, so he was very concerned about it. And I said I don't know, I think I'm going to study business management in Peru, where all my friends are going to be with my friends. So he said, "Okay, there's no way you're going to go where all your friends are going because that's just being in school again. I see that you are cooking all the time, you really like to cook, right?"

For me and I think for many people at that time, 20 years ago, for a kid, being a chef was not something normal. I cooked like it was a hobby, not thinking it was a career. And my dad was the one who told me that if you really like to cook, have you thought of becoming a chef? And I said, sometimes I do. And he said, "I'll support you, no problem." And then I started really thinking about it. The only condition he gave me was that "I'm gonna help you with your career. You have to find a university. I need you to have a bachelor's degree in that career."

And it was hard because at that time in Peru there were no cooking schools -- they were opening one, but it was for only one year. So I started to search all over the world and I found one in United States; Rhode Island, in Providence called Johnson & Wales. And that's where I went. I started researching and I went to the campus, I talked to some friends and they told me it's pretty good. And I did four years there, that's when I started to study and cook, and decided to do it professionally in a way.

What has inspired you through the years when cooking? Was the inspiration different then from what inspires you now in the kitchen?

Oh yes. I think I change a lot, you know, and maybe that happens to a lot of chefs. When I started cooking, I really didn't want to do Peruvian cuisine, I was more oriented to Japanese, even European style of cooking. Because in Peru also, nobody was in restaurants; people ate Peruvian food in their houses. So nobody really thought that Peruvian food would be good -- even if Peruvian food was great all the time. We didn't appreciate it. So when I started I was more focused on Japanese and European.

When I went to the States, I realized that my dream was to open a restaurant, but I wanted to do steaks and sushi. And I came back to Peru after graduating, and I wanted to open a restaurant at that time, even though I didn't work anywhere. My father is a person that's been around me all the time and he helped me a lot with decisions. He's the one, if you ask me, who is the person that I admire the most? That's my dad. Even though he is very strict, he has a good philosophy. He said, "You need to go to Japan. You need to do something related to Japanese food to be in Japan." I have been to Japan every year because of my family, so I have been to Japan. But I've never lived in Japan. I was a tourist, you know, a few weeks, one month... But then, it's to live. He said you should go there and see how to live. So I went to Japan.

I had my grandparent's house so I didn't have to spend, and from there, he helped me also to find a job in a friend's company in restaurants. So I went to Japan, started working there, an izakaya in Osaka, I started in an izakaya in Tennoji, and I started looking for something else because there they just did sushi. My grandfather helped me with a friend that was a chef, to find a place to work, and he recommended me to a very good restaurant, it's called Seto Sushi. I worked there for 2 years, starting with washing pots and pans. This is the way in Japan, starting from the bottom and working my way up.

And after that, I was missing a lot of Peru so I came back to Peru. I did a couple of internships also in some hotels and started as a line cook. After Japan, I had two jobs: specializing in Japanese food in Lima, and then I was also a cook for the hotel. I did many jobs, banquets--I was all over the kitchen. And then I worked my way up. And then they offered me the position of Food & Beverage Manager. I took the job because I really think I also like management in a way, since I was planning to open a restaurant, I thought that having seen the back of the house, the kitchen, it is also important to be able to see how to run a restaurant--how to see the food cost and things like that.

You are known to champion Nikkei cuisine. How has it evolved through the years? Where is Nikkei now?

I think we're still in the third stage, this stage is for a while, which is freedom, actually. I think that right now we understand that as Peruvians, that Nikkei cuisine is part of Peruvian cuisine. We in Peru have done a good job, I think, in analyzing our cuisine, in thinking about it--in trying to understand how all this history together with other cultures, together with biodiversity of the country, has ended up in modern Peruvian cuisine which the world is starting to know, and people are starting to get curious to learn about Peruvian cuisine. It's like a puzzle. The puzzle of Peruvian cuisine, with every piece you could have the whole picture. And one of the pieces of this puzzle is Nikkei cuisine.

Nikkei cuisine or Japanese influence on Peruvian cuisine, we now have many dishes in our food. That happens also in the Philippines because of the Spanish influence, but in this case, it's strange. You're talking about South America and Japan. I just did a commentary for one presentation for a congress in New York, and I explained it this way--if you see Japan and Peru, they're very far away, but there's something that unites them and brings them together, which is the ocean. There is a direct highway from Japan to the coast of Peru. At that time when the immigrants came, there were no planes, so they had to come by ship, and that ship just came straight, going down to Peru. And they came to Peru for a reason -- because the government of Peru and the government of Japan made an agreement to bring the farmers of Japan to Peru. And this was because of the Industrial Revolution. Many farmers in Japan didn't have jobs, and Peru has always been a farming country. So Peru wanted farmers, and Japan didn't have jobs, they established themselves in Peru, and a new culture is born. The Nikkei culture.

What do you think is the appeal of Nikkei cuisine, as it is now being recognized worldwide, with more people appreciating this kind of food?

I think, for example, if you analyze Nikkei cuisine, it is not forced. First of all, I don't like the word fusion. Because fusion I think sometimes is misunderstood or is a way of just saying, whatever I do, I can mix everything, and if you don't like it it's okay because it is fusion. I think every fusion has a name. It could be Creole, it could be Nikkei, Italian-Peruvian, Filipino-Spanish... okay? Then you have the world of creativity. But, talking about the Nikkei cuisine in the world, I think that--and this is the way I explain it--they are so different. If we talk about music, for example. Peru, if you have to compare it to some kind of music, it would be kind of like a hot salsa, even hard rock. Peruvian cuisine is very very full of flavor, spices. On the other hand, you have Japan: very subtle product, very little seasoning.

So you say Peruvian and Japan, they have nothing in common, that's good. Because if they were two cuisines that are too powerful, when they get together, it would clash. To a Peruvian, Japanese food, to tell the truth, it's always missing something, it's like we need something more. Maybe for Japanese, Peruvian cuisine in itself is too much. And that's for the world, maybe? But Nikkei, what it does, is it makes a balance. It spices up Japanese, it lowers the Peruvian. So you end up with a cuisine with a lot of balance based on seafood, on fish, based on Japanese techniques like in Peru we have ceviche, in Japanese we have sashimi. In the world of cold food, all the world of sushi, sashimi, goes very well with the cevicheria, which are the seafood restaurants in Peru. Actually, the cevicheria were created by the Japanese immigrants in Peru. That is why it works.

Now, you don't have to see Nikkei cuisine only as a concept. Many restaurants in the world which are not Nikkei but they do Peruvian food, or even if not Peruvian food they do creative food of whatever, they have Nikkei dishes. Tiradito, or they have ceviche Nikkei, for example. So you don't have to be a Nikkei restaurant to use Nikkei techniques and I'm happy because there's a reason why this works and besides the one I say, the music example, I always say these ones are like magnets--the poles attract. Similar poles reject.

And the DNA of Peruvian cuisine is based on two ingredients: on the side of Asia or Japan, is soy sauce. We use a lot of soya sauce in Peruvian cuisine. And in Peru soya sauce is one of the ingredients that every single person has in the house. And that doesn't happen in Latin America, it's not normal. The richest and the poorest person in Peru has soy sauce. Because we use it for every day food for seasoning--and it's not Peruvian. And on the other side we have the main Peruvian ingredient which is aji or chilis. Chilis are native from Peru and Mexico, and they come to Asia. There is a story, it's not yet a fact but it's something that I have read, that they come with the Portuguese to Macau, to China, and then spread to Asia. Soya, the soy sauce, and chilies--together they are a perfect match. They use them in Thailaind, they use them in China, in Korea, they use them here. But you are using Peru and you are using Japan. Every day! So having said that, if the base of your cuisine is a base of chilis and soy, it's going to be tasty. It's like, I don't know--olive oil with tomatoes, no? Always a good combination. There are things that match. So 90 percent of my preparations start with soy and with chilis. From there, I can use all the ingredients from Peru. It's a seasoning that works because there is a logic in it. It's not like hey, let's mix this and that.

 

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You can now taste the exciting and contemporary flavours of Peru at Samba, now open for lunch and dinner on Level 8 of Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila, 30th Street corner 5th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. Samba features contemporary Latin American cuisine with a particular focus on seafood. For reservations, please call (02) 820 0888 or email samba@shangri-la.com. Visit shangri-la.com/fort and www.samba-fort.com, and follow Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila on Facebook (/shangrilafort) and Instagram (@shangrilafort and @dineshangrilafort).

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