At last month’s 25th edition of the World Travel Awards, Peru won the title of Best Culinary Destination for the seventh consecutive year. Peruvians have been able to incorporate into their Inca heritage the cuisine from Spanish, Italian, French, African, Japanese and Chinese immigrants.
The country’s extensive ecological biodiversity provides an immense variety of regional culinary ingredients and traditions, and a constant reinvention of dishes. For example, chifa is a fusion of Cantonese and Peruvian cuisines, and the restaurants that serve these specialties are very popular in Peru.
Likewise, nikkei cuisine was created by the descendants of Japanese immigrants who arrived in Peru in 1889 from Okinawa, Kumamoto, and Fukushima to work in the sugarcane and cotton fields. Since many of the ingredients they used in cooking were not available in their new home country, they looked for alternatives to replace them and unwittingly created a unique gastronomy. Their restaurants offered familiar Peruvian dishes prepared with Japanese ingredients such as kion (ginger), ajinomoto, rice vinegar, sesame oil and wasabi.
Nikkei marries the simplicity and precision of Japanese cooking techniques with the flavor profiles of Peru, including Andean tubers, ajíes (Peruvian chiles) and endemic herbs, combined with ingredients used in both countries such as fresh seafood, seaweed and rice, for a distinctive culinary experience. By the 1980s nikkei cuisine was fully established in Peru, with dishes such as pulpo al olivo (thin sliced cooked octopus, served with botija olive mayonnaise), tiradito (thin cut raw fish served with tiger’s milk), and chita fish with fried garlic, among others.
Lucky Robot, a casual Japanese restaurant in Austin’s popular South Congress Avenue, switched its menu to focus more intensively on nikkei in the spring. With over 15 years’ experience in Japanese cuisine, training under Master Shibazaki-san of Benihana and Tyson Cole of Uchi, executive chef Jay Huang is a master of Japanese flavors and plating, enhanced by a passion for sustainability and support of local purveyors.
Chef de cuisine Julio-Cesar Florez, a native of Lima, served as chef de cuisine of the now-defunct Peruvian-themed Isla and has been the sous chef at Lucky Robot since mid-2017, where he began adding subtle Peruvian touches to Huang’s playful Japanese cuisine. Seeing the success of these special menu items, the two decided to take the 6-year old restaurant in this new direction.
Both Huang and Florez grew up in Houston, attended the same high school and are the same age, but they didn’t meet until they were both already cooking in Austin. Huang was born and raised in the city, the son of immigrant Taiwanese parents, so his palate is as American as it is Asian. Florez’ family arrived from Peru when he was already 13 years old, so his palate is attuned to the Peruvian flavors of his upbringing. Since their tastes and culinary backgrounds are vastly different, they complement each other nicely in the kitchen.
According to Florez, nikkei restaurants in Peru merely serve the classic dishes of comida criolla with the addition of sushi, but he collaborates closely with Huang to put their own spin on this fusion style. At Lucky Robot, traditional Japanese dishes are reimagined with Peruvian touches and ingredients such as ají rocoto, cancha (Peruvian corn nuts), choclo (a large kernel Andean corn), yellow and purple potatoes, lucuma (a native fruit), and preparations such as acebichada sauce, tacu tacu, chupe, ocopa, and more.
“We do not serve traditional nikkei dishes, but we use the same philosophy as Japanese immigrants in Peru, adding Peruvian ingredients and preparations to some of our Japanese dishes,” says Florez. “The reaction was very positive. We started having customers who expected this type of cuisine; even Peruvians who, after trying the food, would ask if there was a Peruvian in the kitchen.” Florez points out that since some local farms are producing Peruvian crops, it is easier to continue the evolution of their cuisine.
Highlights of Lucky’s new menu include the Tacu Yaki, which combines pork belly, adzuki bean onigiri, aji panca, choclo, carrots, farm-fresh sunomono and ponzu verde – a hybrid between the citrusy condiment and the spicy green sauce served with Peru’s chargrilled chicken – and the Lomo Itame made with Koji beef, green and white onions, bell pepper, snap peas, fingerling potatoes, chestnut mushrooms, ají amarillo dashi and rocoto mayu. Raw fish dishes like tiraditos and cebiches boast a heavy Japanese accent. “Japanese cuisine is clean and balanced,” says Huang. “Peruvian adds the pop, elevates it to the next level and gives the food a different dimension. That is what’s exciting about what we are doing – Japanese precision with the flavors of Peru.”
At the core of Lucky Robot’s philosophy is sustainability. Aware of the popularity of certain fish used in Japanese cooking, Huang has sought to replace them with similar tasting, sustainable options. He uses bigeye tuna in place of bluefin, Hawaiian kona kampachi instead of hamachi, and a hybrid striped bass from a farm in Colorado instead of seabass. Other sustainable alternatives include Ōra King salmon from New Zealand, Arctic char, Alcomo jack, and horse mackerel farmed-raised in Japan. Huang also instated a Time Out for Tuna program, choosing not to serve any kind of tuna on Tuesdays throughout the duration of the Bluefin Tuna breeding season, and donates a portion of Tuesday proceeds to support the Ocean Conservancy. “May and June is the breeding season for Pacific Bluefin Tuna in the Sea of Japan, and although at Lucky we do not use any bluefin, we want to bring awareness to its declining population.”
For Huang and Florez, the switch to an experimental nikkei menu came naturally, and since no other restaurant in Austin has such a strong nikkei influence, Lucky Robot fills a unique niche.