A massive new rooftop restaurant called Chotto Matte is coming in 2022 in San Francisco’s Union Square, in the building that used to house Macy’s men’s store. According to a September 1 story in SFist, the restaurant—the latest in a chain with origins in London—will be San Francisco’s largest, with prix-fixe menus ranging in price from $75 to $155 per person.
The part of the story that interested me, though, was the description of the menu: “the very best of Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine.”
This usage of Nikkei—the word is often capitalized, for reasons unknown—was new to me and, it turns out, inaccurate. (More on that in a bit.) New to me but not new-new: it’s actually been around for at least 20 years. I knew a different Nikkei: the Japanese blue-chip stock index founded in 1950, which has a distinct etymology. And neither of these Nikkeis is related etymologically to another Japanese word familiar to many of us: nisei, or “second-generation.”
The menu at Nikkei restaurant at Mandaluyong (metro Manila), Philippines, has Peruvian influences.
First, the Nikkei in “Nikkei cuisine.” (It’s commonly capitalized, although I’m not sure why.) The word was coined by an international group of scholars working on the International Nikkei Research Project, a three-year collaborative project that culminated in two volumes published in 2002. The word is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “Japan” (the Ni- in Nihon) and “descendants”; it’s often interpreted as “the worldwide Japanese diaspora” or “Japanese migrants and their descendants.” But there’s more to it than that, the Discover Nikkei website points out:
The term Nikkei has multiple and diverse meanings depending on situations, places, and environments. Nikkei also include people of mixed racial descent who identify themselves as Nikkei. Native Japanese also use the term Nikkei for the emigrants and their descendants who return to Japan. Many of these Nikkei live in close communities and retain identities separate from the native Japanese.
In other words, “Nikkei” is not specific to Peru, which has South America’s second-largest population of Japanese descendants, after Brazil (the former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was one of them). In restaurant-speak, however, it seems to have acquired the narrower meaning. According to a well-researched 2019 article for Eater by Monica Burton, “Nikkei food is Peruvian ingredients — tropical fish, quinoa, aji amarillo peppers — molded by Japanese techniques.” Burton writes that the Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei trend owes a lot to star chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who opened his first restaurant in Lima in 1973, but it didn’t really gather momentum until 2018, when the first explicitly Japanese-Peruvian restaurant, Once (pronounced like the Spanish word for “eleven”), opened in Las Vegas.
What about the name of the Nikkei stock index? It’s another portmanteau, created from Nihon Keizei Shimbun, or “Japan Economics Newspaper,” which publishes the index.
I know of two other words used to categorize people in specific ethnic diasporas. Desi (from a Sanskrit word meaning land or country) describes people from the Indian subcontinent; ABC stands for American-Born Chinese. Do you know of any other names like these?
The ni- in nisei comes not from Nihon but from the number ni (“two”).
Once I turned my attention to Nikkei-as-in-cuisine, I began seeing it a lot—including in the name of a sushi restaurant not far from my own Oakland neighborhood. (Oakland’s Nikkei Sushi appears to serve conventional sushi with no Peruvian influences.)
Speaking of restaurant names, how about “Chotto Matte”? It comes from a longer Japanese phrase meaning “Just a moment” or “Please wait a bit,” and it supposedly refers to “quick-fire Nikkei cuisine.”