Japanese-Brazilian Fusion the Next Big Thing?

I did a double-take when a buddy of mine told me that his favorite all-you-can-eat sushi bar, Todai Houston, has added a full-service Brazilian churrascaria (South American BBQ) to its ginormous, Japanese-inspired seafood and sushi buffet.

Say what?

By itself this isn't particularly interesting -- big buffets like Todai are always trying new menu items -- except that I also recently picked up the faintest buzz of a new restaurant in London (UK) called Sushinho that bills itself as a true Japanese-Brazilian fusion restaurant.

That's interesting.

I dug deeper. And what I found was a potentially exciting new culinary fusion concept that is founded on a national/cultural exchange that started over 100 years ago.

Did you know that Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan? I sure didn't.

Seems that toward the end of the 19th century, Brazil's coffee plantations experienced a labor shortage due to the abolishment of the African slave trade. Also, Brazil's attempts to recruit impoverished Italian workers were blocked by the Italian government due to reports of low wages and poor working conditions (many Italians would eventually immigrate to Argentina where they profoundly influenced the Argentine culture).

Then at the start of the 20th century the end of feudalism in Japan created a large population of rural, unemployed laborers. Brazil saw an opportunity. In 1907, Brazil and Japan signed an agreement to send Japanese workers to Brazil. In 1908, the ship Kasato Maru from the port of Kobe, Japan arrived in Brazil carrying 790 Japanese farmers. Many more Japanese immigrants followed.

Today, there are over 1.5 million Brazilians with some Japanese ethnic origin (compared to 1.2 million in the US). On June 17, 2008, Prince Naruhito of Japan arrived in Brazil to mark the centenary of Japanese immigration to Brazil.

In London, Sushinho is an ambitious attempt to explore this Japanese-Brazilian fusion through food. Opened in December 2008 to generally good reviews, its menu offers provocative dishes such as grilled tuna with cassava puree and chimichurri sauce, as well as exotic cocktails like the Sakeirinha (a Caipirinha with sake instead of Cachaça ).

In the US, the Japanese-Brazilian concept has been monopolized in recent years by the New York-based Sushi Samba chain of upscale restaurants (which are clearly influenced by the hugely successful Peruvian-Japanese concept of the Nobu restaurant empire).

Back in Houston, the Japanese-Brazilian concept at Todai is undoubtedly more a marriage of marketing convenience rather than a true culinary fusion.

The marketing strategy for Todai's corporate parent is to locate their Japanese seafood buffets in major metropolitan markets with an Asian population of at least 5 percent. Indeed Houston's Asian population is almost exactly 5 percent of the total.

But that number did not sit well with Todai Houston's Chef/Owner Mark Shim. Why limit yourself to only 5 percent of the population in a food-and-restaurant-crazy city like Houston? So with the blessing (or at least knowledge) of Todai corporate, Chef Shim introduced the churrascaria concept to Todai Houston about a year ago (no other Todai franchise has a churrascaria).

The choice of churrascaria was a natural one for Chef Shim. Obviously, a large percentage of Houston's restaurant-going population are steak-loving carnivores. But more personally, Chef Shim is the son of Korean parents who immigrated to Argentina where he grew up.

A visit to Todai Houston is a fascinating experience. Located in a cavernous space in the Marq*E Entertainment Center, your first impression is of the faint aroma of grilled meat. Servers in black uniforms and headsets roam the elaborately decorated dining room with the meat-laden skewers that are emblematic of a churrascaria. Toward the back wall is a brightly lit and seemingly never-ending self service buffet of seafood, sushi and other hot and cold dishes. A small but well-appointed wine list is made available.

Though not as conceptually ambitious as some of the Japanese-Brazilian fusion restaurants around the world, Todai Houston may join their ranks as an unwitting precursor to what may be the next big thing in culinary trends.

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J.C. Reid
Contact: J.C. Reid