How Chefs in Mexico Are Inspired by Japanese Flavors

The son of a baker and a pastry chef, Ricardo Arellano has been cooking with staple ingredients of his home state of Oaxaca his entire life. Yet at his restaurant, Crudo, a tiny six-seat bar in Oaxaca City, he’s preparing dishes that add something new. His nightly tasting menu could feature chilacayote ramen, with translucent noodles made out of the Mexican pumpkin and served in a seaweed broth and topped with edible flowers. Or a kampachi fish-belly taco, which, resembling a nori taco but with the taste of al pastor, is marinated in an adobe extract, wrapped in Mexican pepper leaf, and accompanied by an avocado and cactus salad. Or bluefin tuna sashimi, prepared with grasshopper chile paste and a dash of black beans.

Arellano’s sophisticated and surprising menu should 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, arriving in Mexico as early as the 1930s, owned and operated restaurants that served their community. Although Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates there are only around 30,000 Japanese people or people of Japanese descent living in the country today, their influence on local palates was enormous.

“What surprised me was how many similarities exist between Japanese and Oaxacan cuisines,” says Arellano. He believes the resemblances can be found in the “textures, flavors, preparation,” and use of the ingredients, especially notable in the prominence of herbal flavors in both cuisines. “If you close your eyes and taste miso and mole, you will perceive similar flavors.”

Perhaps the best example of the Mexican Japanese culinary relationship is the beloved cacahuate japones. Literally the “Japanese peanut,” cacahuates japoneses “forever changed the Mexican palate,” says Eduardo Nakatani, whose grandparents, Yoshigei Nakatani and Ema Ávila Espinoza, invented the snack in 1945.

Lightly battered in flour, baked to golden in the oven, and then submerged in soy sauce, the peanuts were an early harbinger of the Japanese food obsession that would eventually take over Mexico; cacahuates japoneses are ubiquitous in the country’s snack shops and convenience stores. Two generations later, Yoshigei and Ema’s grandson, Eduardo, owns Fideo Gordo (which means “fat noodle” in Spanish), an udon bar in the Roma neighborhood. Designed to emulate his grandparents’ kitschy living room, Fideo Gordo is a prime example of how these two culinary traditions are being brought together to produce a third set of flavors: Some bowls are more traditional Japanese; others feature lamb and consomé de barbacoa.

Nakatani also serves as the literal face of his own line of Iki-brand sauces, which, coming in flavors like chipotle and umami, experiment with fermentation techniques, soy sauce, and Mexican peppers. The sauces, he says, are designed to “give your quesadilla, nopales, and carnitas more punch.” He also develops recipes and teaches cooking courses in which he prepares fresh ramen with salsa verde and bass with somen noodles, lime dashi, and jalapenos.

Aki Kawakami, a member of Mexico City’s Japanese community and also the former manager of Mog, a popular Japanese restaurant, believes that the combination of culinary practices is symbolic of the affinity between the two countries. “If you look closely, you’ll see little connections everywhere,” she says about 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 viewed by locals as an emblem of the relationship between the two cultures. Meanwhile, Japan is the world’s second-largest market for Mexican food and seafood exports (after the United States).

That’s noteworthy, not just because Japan and Mexico are so far away from each other, but also because Mexican cuisine inside Mexico was not as susceptible to outside influence before NAFTA was signed into effect in 1994. Up to that point, imports were relatively rare, and the Mexican diet consisted almost exclusively of domestic produce and proteins. Although researchers have documented how the saturation of Coca-Cola and Nestlé products severely compromises the traditional milpa diet (that consisted largely of fresh corn, beans and vegetables), NAFTA’s opening of borders and the newfound arrival of ingredients previously available exclusively through informal channels also challenged the impenetrability of the Mexican diet — and allowed it to reflect the diversity of the population in previously unseen ways.

“There’s so much history in each civilization, so much that is old and rich. For me, that’s why there’s so much chemistry,” explains Eduardo Ríos, the head chef at Paradero Todos Santos. Ríos’s menu combines traditional Japanese ingredients with those local to Baja, taking particular advantage of the region’s fresh seafood. Mackerel, fished at 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. Ríos makes a tostada with raw longfin yellowtail on one side, and on the other side, the same fish cured overnight in salt and sugar, dipped in a koji habanero diluted in rice vinegar, and served with grilled avocado and mayo.

In Ríos’s opinion, the flavors fundamental to each cuisine are “chiles, fish, soy, and rice vinegar” — soy sauce is believed to have come to Mexico in the mid-19th century from a wave of Chinese immigrants. The Japanese “respect” and “love ingredients,” as much as Mexican chefs, Rio says. “Honestly, sharing our table is just more rico,” meaning rich.

That minimalist, Japanese Mexican hybrid approach to cooking has taken off in Baja California, where the Mediterranean-like climate grants chefs access to fresh seafood and vegetables. About 45 minutes north of Los Cabos in Pescadero is Noah, a sushi restaurant that puts its own twist on Mexican Japanese food. Its menu includes an albahaca roll stuffed with teriyaki chicken and pineapple and wrapped in a basil leaf, which is widely grown on the Baja Peninsula, and a tuna panko roll, prepared with locally sourced tuna ceviche and a cilantro emulsion.

Japanese cooking has been interpreted by different styles of regional cooking in Mexico, and is still being reimagined. “I make Oaxacan food, not Japanese food,” Arellano of Crudo says, crediting his time at Enrique Olvera’s Oaxaca restaurant Criollo as the place where he learned to experiment with flavors and styles. “I didn’t invent this — I am simply inspired by these flavors that I’ve personally liked and found really interesting. I want locals to taste these too.”

As Arellano’s words signal, the emergence of this new cuisine is not without controversy, and its growing popularity draws many opportunities for bastardization. Witnessing the huge explosion of Japanese food in Mexico over the last few years, Kawakami sometimes feels protective over the cuisine, and is concerned about entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on a trend without any knowledge of the principles of Japanese food — or even respect for its heritage. What she’s worried about are “those places that have guys dressed up as samurais with chopsticks in their hair,” she says, recalling a few bad experiences. “As if you would ever put a fork and knife in your hair.”

Kawakami is wary of the gimmicky, dime-a-dozen Japanese-inspired restaurants that open to make a quick dollar. Especially for immigrants or the children of immigrants, who face additional barriers to achieving financial stability and are often considered outsiders within the city, watching those who once mocked their culture now profit off it looks too much like cultural appropriation. Modifications can overlook critical traditions, while cartoonish cliches — like chopsticks as hair accessories — can feed into racist stereotypes.

But it’s not that Kawakami thinks fusion and conservation are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, she’s proud of the niche cultural intersection she belongs to, and she’s a big fan of some of the most popular Japanese Mexican hybrid foods, like avocado tempura and edamames preparados, grilled edamame lightly battered in lime and chile, which are a staple of fast-casual Japanese restaurants in the country.

These examples evidence that intercultural amalgamations have the potential to be positive innovations, if done thoughtfully and with respect. One way that chefs can do that is by ensuring that what they serve is done well, bringing joy to members of the communities being borrowed from. Which is important because, for most eaters, the proof is in the pudding. “If the miso is good and the rice is sticky — by all means, go ahead,” Kawakami says, making a thumbs up. “Just make sure it’s on point.”

Nili Blanck is a writer based in Mexico City.