The son of a baker and pastry chef, Ricardo Arellano has been cooking with staple ingredients from his home state of Oaxaca his entire life. Yet at his restaurant, Crudo, a small six-seat bar in downtown Oaxaca, he’s cooking up some new additions. His nightly tasting menu might include chilacayote ramen, with translucent noodles made from Mexican pumpkin and served in a seaweed broth and topped with edible flowers. Or the Kampachi fish-belly taco, which looks like a nori taco but with the flavor of al pastor, marinated in an adobe extract, wrapped in Mexican pepper leaves, and topped with an avocado and cactus salad. Or bluefin tuna sashimi, prepared with grasshopper chili paste and a dash of black beans.
Arellano’s refined and surprising menu can be considered part of a wave of Mexican chefs combining local culinary traditions with distinctly Japanese flavors. Like Arellano, these chefs are borrowing from the first wave of Japanese immigrants, who arrived in Mexico in the 1930s and owned and operated restaurants that served their communities. Although Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that there are about 30,000 Japanese or people of Japanese descent living in the country today, they had a large influence on the local lake.
Arellano says, “I was struck by how many similarities there are between Japanese and Oaxacan cuisine. He believes that the similarities can be found in “texture, flavor, preparation” and the use of ingredients, particularly notable in the prominence of herbal flavors in both cuisines. “If you look at your If you close your eyes and taste miso and sesame, you will feel the same flavors.”
Perhaps the best example of Mexican Japanese culinary ties is the beloved cacahuate japones. Literally “Japanese peanuts,” cacahuates japoneses “changed the Mexican palate forever,” says Eduardo Nakatani, whose grandparents, Yoshigei Nakatani and Ima Avila Espinoza, invented the snack in 1945.
Lightly battered in flour, baked to golden brown, and dipped in soy sauce, almonds were an early harbinger of the Japanese food obsession that would eventually take over Mexico; peanuts japoneses They are ubiquitous in the country’s grocery stores and convenience stores. Two generations later, Yoshigei and Ima’s grandson, Eduardo, owns Fideo Gordo (which means “fat noodles” in Spanish), an udon bar in the Roma neighborhood. Designed to emulate the kitschy living room of his grandparents, Fideo Gordo is a prime example of how these two culinary traditions are brought together to produce a third set of flavors: some bowls are more traditional Japanese; Others feature lamb and consomme de barbacoa.
Nakatani also serves as the literal face of his own line of Iki-brand sauces, which come in flavors like chipotle and umami, using fermentation techniques, soy sauce, and Mexican peppers. The sauces, he says, are “designed to give your quesadillas, nopales and carnitas an extra punch.” He also develops recipes and teaches cooking courses in which he prepares fresh ramen with salsa verde and somen noodles with lime dashi and jalapeños.
Aki Kawakami, a member of Mexico City’s Japanese community and former manager of the popular Japanese restaurant Mog, believes the combination of culinary practices symbolizes the affinity between the two countries. “If you look closely, you’ll see little connections everywhere,” she says of the prevalence of Japanese culture in Mexico. The city’s famous jacaranda trees that bloom in early spring, she notes, were originally planted by Tatsugoro Matsumoto, a Japanese immigrant who opened a landscaping business, and are seen by locals as a symbol of the connection between the two cultures. Meanwhile, Japan is the world’s second largest market for Mexican food and seafood exports (after the United States).
This is notable, not only because Japan and Mexico are so far from each other, but also because before NAFTA was implemented in 1994, Mexican cuisines within Mexico were not as susceptible to outside influence. Until then, imports were relatively rare, and the Mexican diet consisted almost entirely of domestic products and proteins. However, researchers have documented how the saturation of Coca-Cola and Nestlé products has seriously compromised the traditional Milpa diet (which includes fresh corn, beans, and vegetables), the opening of NAFTA borders, and new arrivals of ingredients previously available through informal means. challenged the impenetrability of the Mexican diet—and allowed it to reflect the diversity of the population in ways not seen before.
“There’s so much history in every civilization, so much that’s old and rich. For me, that’s why there’s so much chemistry,” explains Eduardo Ríos, head chef at Paradero Todos Santos. Rio’s menu combines traditional Japanese ingredients with Baja local, taking special advantage of the region’s fresh seafood. Mackerel caught in Punta Lobos in Todos Santos that same day is cured in kombu; The Baja Peninsula’s famous raw chocolate clams are prepared in a miso paste with a dash of soy sauce. Rios makes a tostada with raw longfin yellowtail on one side, and on the other, the same fish cured overnight in salt and sugar, drizzled in a cozy habanero drizzled in rice vinegar, and served with grilled avocado and mayo.
In Rios’ view, the basic flavors for each dish are “chiles, fish, soy and rice vinegar”—soy sauce is believed to have arrived in Mexico in the mid-19th century from a wave of Chinese immigrants. The Japanese “respect” and “love the ingredients,” as much as Mexican chefs, Rio says. “Honestly, sharing our schedule is more Rico,” Rich means.
That minimalist, Japanese-Mexican hybrid approach to cooking originated in Baja California, where the Mediterranean climate gives chefs access to fresh seafood and vegetables. About 45 minutes north of Los Cabos in Pescadero is Noah’s, a sushi restaurant that puts its own twist on Mexican-Japanese cuisine. Its menu includes Albahaca rolls stuffed with teriyaki chicken and pineapple and wrapped in basil leaves grown widely in the Baja Peninsula, and tuna panko rolls prepared with locally sourced tuna ceviche and cilantro emulsion.
Japanese cooking has been interpreted, and still reimagined, by various styles of regional cooking in Mexico. “I make Oaxacan food, not Japanese food,” says Arellano of Crudo, crediting his time at Enrique Olvera’s Oaxaca restaurant Criollo with where he learned to experiment with flavors and styles. “I didn’t invent it – I was just inspired by these flavors that I personally liked and found really interesting. I want the locals to taste it too.
As Arellano’s words indicate, the emergence of this new cuisine is not without controversy, and its growing popularity attracts many opportunities for debauchery. Having seen the explosion of Japanese cuisine in Mexico in the last few years, Kawakami sometimes feels protective of the food, and worries about entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on the trend without respecting the principles of Japanese cuisine – or even its heritage. . What she worries about, “are places where guys dress up as samurai with chopsticks in their hair,” she says, recalling some bad experiences. “Like you would put a fork and a knife in your hair.”
Kawakami is wary of opening a dozen Japanese-inspired restaurants, a ploy to make quick dollars. Especially for immigrants or the children of immigrants, who face additional barriers to achieving economic stability and are often considered outsiders within the city, it seems like cultural appropriation to see those who once mocked their culture now profit. Modifications can ignore critical conventions, while cartoonish clichés – such as chopsticks as hair accessories – can feed into racist stereotypes.
But it is not that Kawakami sees fusion and preservation as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, she’s proud of the cultural intersections she belongs to, and she’s a big fan of the most popular Japanese-Mexican hybrid foods like avocado tempura and edamames preparados, grilled edamame lightly battered in lime and chile. The staple of fast-casual Japanese restaurants in the country.
These examples show that intercultural integration has the potential for positive innovations, if done thoughtfully and respectfully. One way chefs can do that is by making sure what they serve is well-done, bringing joy to community members. Which is important because, for many eaters, the proof is in the pudding. “If the miso is good and the rice is sticky — by all means, go ahead,” Kawakami says with a thumbs up. “Just make sure it’s on point.”
Blue Blank is a writer based in Mexico City.