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International Cuisine in Nishiogi: A Taste of Multiple Migrations

Japanese and overseas migrants contribute to Nishiogi's multicultural foodscape. At this neighborhood eatery, not only do the owners bring the concept and flavours of a California-style deli, but they also teach monthly classes in English on various styles of cooking. 

Deli Café Kiku is the product of two migrants, one Japanese and one American. The story began over a decade ago when the owner Rina lived in Los Angeles and fell in love with the Southern California lifestyle. “When Rina even sees a map of California she starts crying,” Smitty her American partner said. Rina also became enamored with numerous small delicatessens that dotted Southern California many of which are run by immigrants from all over the world. It was seeing all these transnational cuisines that inspired her to open her own deli in Japan. 

Rina looked all over Tokyo for a neighborhood where she could both live and run a deli. A visit to Mu-hung a Singaporean-style diner inspired her to chose Nishiogi. The community seemed accepting of small entrepreneurs producing novel cuisines, and it seemed like an everyday place for living rather than a place for special occasions - in Japanese, more ke (everyday) than hare (festive). Starting early every morning Rina and Smitty produce the dishes that fill the refrigerated display case and counter of the deli. Many are an amalgam of American and Japanese dishes, but they also include African, Indian, European and others inspirations. Some favorites are “Green-green” (a cheese and chicken salad in basil pesto), “Shrimp and Avocado Salad,” and a savory “Meatloaf” enriched with liver. Having reached its ten-year mark this year, Kiku is now a Nishiogi institution, especially popular with working women and mothers at lunchtime. 

The shop manager Smitty, who original hails from Staten Island New York, arrived in Japan thirty-two years ago at the age of eighteen while serving in the US military. He returned to Tokyo for love, which didn't last, but ended up running an English school and a hotdog stand in Harajuku. He met Rina at Kiku, and after they became friends, he decided to help her out. Now they run the shop together as a team. Smitty, who is African-American, brings a “soul food” touch to the menu, he said, including the meat loaf, a gumbo and other items that change with the seasons. For a year, he also offers monthly cooking lessons in English. Last month the lessons featured African cuisine, and a sale of crafts made by a Japanese woman from African hand-woven materials. Kiku, which is Rina’s family name, is thus a story of a Japanese migrant in the USA, returning to Japan and, together with an American migrant partner, bringing their own idea of American migrant deli culture to a local urban community.
(Farrer, Sept. 25, 2015, March 15, 2017)

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