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A waiter at São Paulo Japanese restaurant Djapa (left) and Telma Shiraishi, founder of Aizomê, also in the Brazilian city. Photos courtesy Ludmilla Bernardi and Carol Gherardi. 

How São Paulo Fell in Love with Sushi

“Being a Brazilian chef but a descendant of Japanese immigrants, I try to combine all my cultural references to create my dishes.”
March 12, 2019, 2:11pm

It was the 18th of June, 1908, when the first 165 Japanese families arrived in Brazil by boat to work in the country’s coffee fields. Today, 111 years later, Brazil has the largest community of Japanese descendants in the world outside of Japan, standing at an estimated 1.9 million people across the country.

This expansion has not been without hardship. Government propaganda encouraging Japanese immigrants from countryside communities to travel to Brazil promised something very different to the stark working conditions and financial struggles that they were met with. Alongside this, racism and xenophobia against Japanese peopl were commonplace in Brazil until as recently as the 1980s. Although the prejudice is seemingly less overt now than it was then, it is still faced by many Japanese descendants to this day.

The first Japanese migrants to make the move to the city of São Paulo established themselves in the central neighbourhood of Liberdade, where it was cheapest to rent apartments and inns. As a community began to form, restaurants started to open: small, family-owned houses, serving traditional Japanese dishes to homesick families. Over a century later, Japanese cuisine is one of the most well-loved in the country. But how did that shift happen?

“Up until the 70s, Japanese food was seen as extremely exotic—eating raw fish wasn’t well-perceived by the Brazilian public,” explains Jhony Arai, author and former editor-in-chief of publisher Japan-Brazil Communications. “There was this distanced perception of Japanese culture in Brazil. But this started to change in the late 80s, largely due to the success Japanese food started to have in the United States. Sushi restaurants started showing up in TV shows as places that ‘rich characters’ frequented. It was then that more Japanese restaurants focused on the Western palate opened their doors, outside of Liberdade.”

Case in point: all-you-can-eat, sushi-centric Japanese restaurants, known as rodízios are some of the most frequented dining spots in São Paulo, and offer a Brazil-ified takes on Japanese food. One example of such a restaurant is Djapa, which currently sits at TripAdvisor’s top position, above 933 other restaurants serving the cuisine in the city.

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In the kitchen of Djapa, one of São Paulo's many successful Japanese restaurants. Photo courtesy Ludmilla Bernardi.

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Photo courtesy Ludmilla Bernardi.

Djapa’s menu includes classic Brazilian dishes, such as shrimp skewers and casquinha de siri, a spiced crab dish presented in a shell, frequently served in seaside towns. But it also serves a variety of teppan options, from the classic salmon and vegetables combination all the way to a more unconventional Portuguese-style cod and potato with an added slice of shiitake on top.

Djapa owner José Miguel Hallague explains that these menu decisions were made not with the intention of creating “fusion” cuisine, but rather the purpose of making Japanese food more accessible to the relatively unfamiliarised Brazilian public, back in the early 2000s.

“Brazil in itself has a huge amount of culinary differences within the country—culturally, we have a diversity and mix of flavours you are unlikely to find elsewhere,” he explains. “[At] the beginning [of Djapa], there were people who went to the restaurant accompanying a friend, who had never tried raw fish before. So, they order a teppan, which is more familiar. Then they try a little of their friends’ sushi. Before you know it, they love Japanese food.”

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Djapa serves a mix of Brazilian and Japanese dishes, including sushi. Photo courtesy Ludmilla Bernardi.

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Photo courtesy Ludmilla Bernardi.

While all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants are are now popular all over São Paulo for their variety, value, and accessibility, this hasn’t stopped independent Japanese eateries from thriving. All over Liberdade, ramen and traditional food spots run by members of the Japanese-Brazilian community keep history alive, while adding local flavours to the mix.

Lámen Açú, run by Nancy Fukayama, serves traditional Japanese ramen, as well as her own take: “Amazon lámen,” a dish infused with ingredients from the Northern state of Pará, the third largest Japanese community in Brazil, where her husband comes from.

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Amazon lámen, a Brazilian-Japanese ramen, served at Lámen Açú. Photo courtesy Rafael Salvador.

The broth is made mixing a traditional broth recipe with tucupi—a sour extract taken from the wild Amazonian manioc root. When it comes to toppings, as well as the classic seaweed, naruto (fish cake) and green onion, Fukayama adds jambú, a dark leaf that makes your mouth a little numb, and dried shrimp, both specialties from the north of Brazil.

“All the ingredients are sourced directly from Pará—most of it from the family, or other farmers in the state,” Fukayama explains.

Telma Shiraishi, the chef behind restaurant Aizomê, also specialises in dishes that utilise a mix of Brazilian seasonal ingredients and traditional Japanese ingredients.

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Sushi moriawase served at Aizomê. Photo courtesy Carol Gherardi.

“Being a Brazilian chef but a descendant of Japanese immigrants, I try to combine all my cultural references to create my dishes,” she says. “It wouldn’t make sense for me to make something 100-percent traditional, considering I live on the other side of the world, which has a different climate, different culture, and different history.”

Shiraishi’s work, both as the official chef for the Japanese consulate in Brazil and as the head of her own restaurant, focuses strongly in combining local, fresh, sustainable, and ethically sourced ingredients with Japanese preparation techniques to create dishes with unique flavours that draw from her own multifaceted heritage.

“In Brazil, we have to be more flexible—it’s harder to get traditional ingredients, and when they arrive, they are few and expensive,” she explains. “The work that I do is based strongly on understanding ingredients—respecting their origin, developing a relationship with providers, showing them that there is demand for, say, yuzu, which for me is the quintessential scent of Japan. After all, one of the many great legacies of the first generation of immigrants, my grandparents, is in agriculture.”

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Aizomê's tempura de camarão. Photo courtesy Carol Gherardi.

Many of the non-Japanese ingredients Shiraishi includes in her creations were introduced to her by North Eastern cooks, or when watching her grandparents improvise while preparing Japanese meals with Brazilian ingredients. Some examples are pickled hibiscus petals (called hanaume—“flower plum”—by the Japanese-Brazilian community) as a replacement for umeboshi, or maxixe, a cucumber-like vegetable which has become a favourite of Japanese visitors, and mapará, an Amazonian fish prepared using the same technique used for eel in traditional cuisine.

Today, over a century after that first arrival, Brazilian Japanese food has its own identity, thriving beyond Hollywoodian influence and creating unique flavours that attract visitors from all over the world. There are, of course, still challenges—currently there are no official courses through which to learn Japanese preparation techniques, meaning many chefs, both descendants and North-Eastern Brazilian chefs newly introduced to the cuisine, have to largely be self-taught.

And although homesickness might not be as strong a cooking motivation for the Brazilian-Japanese descendants who are third-generation and beyond, food in Brazil still carries a strong sense of heritage that will never go away.

“More than specific dishes, it’s about flavours that remind me of my family,” Shiraishi says. “At parties, I remember there was always futomaki, wrapped in very thin omelette or dehydrated swiss chard if my grandparents couldn’t find seaweed. Sekihan, which is a sweet rice preparation with azuki beans. It’s food that I remember not finding very interesting as a kid, but now, as I understand and rescue these memories, are dishes and flavours that carry a strong emotional value.”