Thursday, May 30, 2024

Sushi Nikkei brings the vastness of the Japanese diaspora directly to Long Beach from Peru


When it comes to Sushi Nikkei in Bixby Knolls, there is often confusion over what, precisely, “Peruvian sushi” means—and to begin with, for its Peruvian owners, Daiwa Wong and her husband Eduardo Chang Ogata, this is not fusion food but a direct product of Japanese culture flourishing in Peru.

“Sushi is as Peruvian as it is Japanese back home,” Daiwa said. “They are intertwined with the spirit of the Nikkei.”

What is the meaning of ‘nikkei’ and how does it apply to the cuisine found at Sushi Nikkei?

“Nikkei” in Japanese means those of Japanese descendants, the literal span of the Japanese diaspora worldwide—and for a culture so subsumed in its own identity, with strong ties to family and geography, those outside of the island proper have had to doubly fight to maintain their sense of Japanese-ness while also assimilating to their new homes. 

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Chef Eduardo Chang of Sushi Nikkei. Photo by Brian Addison.

The Nikkei of Peru are no exception: With the promise of gold—more a rumor than reality—and possible land—farming land was, indeed, abundant—along with much more dire circumstances like indentured labor, the first set of Japanese emigrants arrived on the shores of Peru in the late 1800s.

The rise of the Nikkei in Peru was not an easy one: After anti-Japanese sentiments arose to such a height that a race riot occurred in 1940, the Nikkei of Peru realized they needed to “open up and integrate into Peruvian society,” according to sociologist and Japanese diaspora historian Ayumi Takenaka¹—despite an overwhelming history of being excluded from that very society that included the destruction and stealing of their property.

Long Beach—unlike other spaces in SoCal—reflected what Daiwa and Eduardo wanted as immigrants: Something near the ocean with a place that honored a sense of community and inclusion.

The result? Decades upon decades of mending—mixed rightfully with anger and resentment—that required both non-Asian Peruvians and the Nikkei to figure out ways to better connect and, perhaps most importantly, understand one another as not just humans, but as a singular Peru². And that was heavily done through food—or what Takenaka describes as “gastro-politics:” Caught in a liminal state where they are too Japanese for Peru and too Peruvian for Japan, the Nikkei had to mold their own space in an environment that was both hostile and dismissive³.

So “Nikkei” in Peru is much more than just those of Japanese descent; it is a cuisine that has simultaneously lifted up Peruvian food and its Nikkei population. Think Nobu Matsuhisa, founder and chef for the world-recognized Nobu, who opened his first restaurant in Lima, Peru in 1973.

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An assortment of nigiri, Sushi Nikkei’s most stellar example of Peruvian sushi. Photo by Brian Addison.

Sushi Nikkei’s offerings are a broader reflection of Peruvian culinary excellence

While Nikkei cuisine has unquestionably made a name for itself in the higher echelons of the food world—Maido, the Lima-based Nikkei restaurant, has remained in the Top 10 of the World’s Best Restaurants list since 2018—the understanding of Nikkei stateside has had a much larger Hill of Recognition to climb.

Eduardo’s parents—Japanese on his mother’s side, Chinese on his father’s—were born in Peru and experienced the climb of not just Nikkei cuisine but Asian culture and food in general—and it was through them that, through decades of traditions, he found himself creating sushi Nikkei-style.

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Eduardo masterfully rolls one of his sushi rolls at Sushi Nikkei in Bixby Knolls. Photo by Brian Addison.

“It was about twenty years ago that I really began incorporating Peruvian flavors into my sushi,” Eduardo said. “I have a sushi restaurant in Peru [Yume in Lima] after having worked seven years at some of Lima’s most respected sushi restaurants. It was there that I began to gauge people’s reactions to what they were eating: What they liked, if it was different from traditional ingredients… From there, I created the list of what I wanted to do in my head and have been doing it ever since.”

The rise of the Nikkei in Peru was not an easy one: Facing massive discrimination for decades, they realized they had to integrate into the very society stole their property—and they did that through the connection of food.

In other words, what one can expect from Sushi Nikkei in Long Beach is what you can expect from Nikkei cuisine in Peru: Nikkei Peruvian ingredients—chalaquita, quinoa, aji chiles, parrillera salsa…— molded by Japanese techniques. 

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The baked scallops, a stand-out dish from Sushi Nikkei. Photo by Brian Addison.

What’s the food like at Sushi Nikkei?

The results are something desperately needed in the Long Beach sushi world: A step away from our very Thai- and Cambodian-influenced sushi and a dive into a world where nigiri sees a beautifully, burgundy-hued slice of aburi tuna is striped with a bright yellow strip of puréed aji amarillo. 

Where one can have a bowl of Peruvian ceviche—a fresh fish of chef’s choice, entirely raw and unmarinated, sitting in a bath of leche de tigre and small bed of sweet potato, with its crunchy bits of cancha—that cleanly and happily steers clear of the lime-saturated’n’marinated ceviche we know from Mexico.

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The Peruvian ceviche, a gorgeous ode to one of Peru’s national dishes, sits in front a sushi roll from Sushi Nikkei. Photo by Brian Addison.

Where slivers of freshly braised octopus are layered with chalaquita—where onions, aji peppers, and cilantro create a finely-chopped topping—and parrillera salsa—a peppery, chimichurri-like sauce with large hints of soy, garlic, and vinegar—to create an experience they call “octopus fire.” And man, while it is not fiery in the sense of being spicy, it brings the fire in terms of flavor: Unami, salt, and spice blend together for a distinctly Peruvian-meets-Japanese take on pulpo.

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It’s where you get to see someone share something that is both intimate and traditions-based; something that is of their home and, given they are using fish from our neighboring Pacific, part of our home.

It is an honoring of the Nikkei’s own history in Peru.

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A sushi tempura roll from Sushi Nikkei. Photo by Brian Addison.

Even more, Sushi Nikkei was born out of best friends falling in love.

The love story behind Sushi Nikkei

Daiwa and Eduardo had long been friends—their Instagrams share photos of their days at Lima’s Colegio Peruano Chino Juan XXIII nearly two decades ago as their relationship progressed—but it wasn’t until, after living in the Valley and unsatisfied with her then-relationship, a recently-single Daiwa returned to Peru.

“When I went back home to Peru, we just started hanging out and we honestly fell in love,” Daiwa said. “Four years ago we got married and Eduardo decided he wanted to try living here in the States—the dream, of course, to open a place as successful as our places in Lima.”

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Eduardo layers a sushi roll with ahi tuna at Sushi Nikkei. Photo by Brian Addison.

Working at Kihon here in Long Beach—where Daiwa noted that its proximity to the ocean along with its caring, welcoming community has always made it feel like a home outside of Peru—they waited to find the right space and, after discovering the place in Bixby Knolls, were simultaneously worried and excited.

“At first, the lack of people on foot and the heavy traffic [from the busy Atlantic Avenue] had made us question whether we had chosen the right spot,” Daiwa said. “But the response, from the get go, has been incredibly supportive.”

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The eight-piece Sushi Nikkei tasting, a must for any patron. Photo by Brian Addison.

From the moment the doors open daily at 5PM, Daiwa’s assertion becomes tangibly echoed: Immediately, patrons begin to fill tables, many of them returning customers who prefer to sit at the sushi counter while taking Eduardo’s suggestions.

And for those uninitiated in Nikkei cuisine—just as I was—fear not: The servers are there to help or, if you trust me, I can assure you there is no bad order at Sushi Nikkei. However, I do have a sincerely deep suggestion: The eight-piece Sushi Nikkei tasting, where you can feel and taste the evolution of Eduardo’s sushi journey. From popped-and-seasoned quinoa atop a white fish to a genuinely surprising butter-meets-parmesan scallop, where Eduardos house-made compound parmesan butter is set atop a scallop before being seared to a golden brown crisp.

It’s nigiri gone Peruvian-and its as wondrous as it is warming to experience, particularly given the journey of Eduardo and Daiwa to the shores of Long Beach.

And as you sit back, admiring the juxtaposition of aji peppers and striped bass sashimi, you’ll notice the bottles of dry or sweet sake began to sit in silver holders filled with ice as the space of Sushi Nikkei becomes something entirely different than when it is empty: Vibrant and just enough cacophony to feel lively but not disruptive, it has a vibe.

And with that vibe, you can watch Sous Chef Diego Kanashiro masterfully slice octopus or prep the fish. Or you can witness the presence of Eduardo and Daiwa, connecting with people—be it in Spanish or English—sharing tales of travel, food, community, and love.

Sushi Nikkei is located at 3819 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls, Long Beach.

1. Takenaka, A. (2004). The Japanese in Peru: History of Immigration, Settlement, and RacializationLatin American Perspectives31(3), 77-98. 

2. Takenaka, A. (2003). Paradoxes of Ethnicity-Based Immigration: Peruvian and Japanese-Peruvian Migrants in Japan, Pp. 222-235 in R. Goodman, C. Peach, A. Takenaka, and P. White (eds.), Global Japan: The Experience of Japan’s New Immigrants and Overseas Communities. Routledge Curzon Press. 

3. Takenaka, A. (2009). How Diasporic Ties Emerge: Pan-American Nikkei Communities and the Japanese StateEthnic and Racial Studies. 32(8): 1325-45. 

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.


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