How Vegan Sushi Ended Up in Peru
Checking in with El Buda Profano, a restaurant serving up vegan sushi made with mushrooms and mangos in Arequipa
Without a second thought, I followed back the vegan sushi restaurant in Arequipa, Peru on Instagram. I try to catalogue all the vegan restaurants in Latin America, even in countries where I’ve never been and have no imminent plans to visit, and this seemed like a gem. In the years since hitting that button, I have fantasized about finally visiting the restaurant, called El Buda Profano, thanks to the moody images of its cave-like interior and precise rolls of cucumber, shiitake mushroom, and mango.
But vegan sushi is nothing new. In New York, Beyond Sushi has been serving up rolls that are a bit more inventive than “avocado” since 2012. On a 2016 trip to Montreal, I ate an omakase meal at Sushi Momo. And in Peru, the fusion of Japanese food with the local cuisine is standard fare. But this globalization of what seems like a very niche vegan sector is what really drew me to El Buda Profano, and finally, I asked its owner, Alan Pater (and, according to him, “chief executive dishwasher”), what led this Canadian to South America and how the response has been to its presence in the city.
How did you land in Peru?
Alan Pater: I had spent some time in Central America a few years back, learning a bit of Spanish. Then eight years ago, I had the opportunity to pack everything up and discover more of Latin America. I spent a couple of months criscrossing Mexico, then a few months on a community radio project in Guatemala. From there I found myself in Nicaragua, running a veggie restaurant on Ometepe. After a year, I moved on to Quito to get a bit of city life, and then to Peru. I landed in Arequipa and got stuck, so decided to germinate the grain of an idea I had for a vegan sushi place. Now the Buda gets lineups out the door and we are looking into moving to a bigger and higher impact space.
When did you open El Buda Profano, and what inspired the restaurant?
We opened at the end of 2015 after a few months of menu development. I'm from Vancouver which has sushi bars on every corner, many with a decent variety of vegan options. There was nothing even close in this corner of the world. Nor were there any cool vegan places where you could go out for the evening with friends for decent food and drinks. There are lots of health food places serving a vegetarian lunch, but nothing more exciting. Vegan sushi is exciting. Especially when served with a decent bottle of wine or sake.
Can you give us a sense of how Peruvian culture responds to veganism: Is it still a niche lifestyle? Has it been growing?
People are curious, although they often associate veganism with health-focused vegetarianism. But yeah, it's niche. We are in a quite provincial city and my impression is that any growth is pretty minimal. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, as we do get quite a few more local clients then I would have expected. And we are always being asked to open in Lima as well.
I feel strongly that 100% vegan restaurants are an important factor in moving veganism out of niche mode. They do need to feature delicious food, accessible pricing, decent service and location, location, location. El Buda has played a small part in it's 3 and a fifth years, but we are a small place and more is needed. I'm working on that, but can't do it alone!
How do you develop new ideas for vegan sushi? Tell us about the last new item you added to the menu and how that idea came about.
We pretty much stick to the menu we started with (don't mess with success). It was developed by chef Jim Daniel Echevaria and incorporates technics and ingredients from Nikkei cuisine (Peruvian-Japanese fusion) along with a few ideas of my own. There are a few things I'd love to try out, but they'll have to wait until we can score a bigger space.
Can you suggest other vegan restaurants for folks traveling to Peru to try?
I'm the worst tourist in the world, almost six years in Peru and I've never been to Machu Picchu or Cusco, so I can't actually recommend any places up that way, though I've heard good things about a couple. Apart from that, I keep pretty busy keeping the Buda running, so have not had that much time for travel to other parts of the country. Unfortunately, there are no other vegan restaurants here in Arequipa.
I’ve noticed over the years that vegan sushi is a global phenomenon. What, to you, is the appeal of this rather specific cuisine?
’cause sushi? I mean sushi is a global phenomenon, right? Vegans deserve more than just kappa makis and/or avocado rolls and love being able to order anything on the menu without worrying that some fish stock might have sneaked in here or there. Plus they can show off to their non-vegan friends that vegan food can out-class the alternative. In our case, non-vegans also rave about the food. Best sushi ever, they say.