california roll origin
dan vojtech photographer/Shutterstock

California Rolls Have a Secret History

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It wasn’t invented in California
california roll origin
dan vojtech photographer/Shutterstock

Restaurant sushi is one of the top things diners are missing most during coronavirus quarantine. One of the most well-known sushi rolls in America that people across the country might be craving is the California roll. It comes with cucumber, crab (usually imitation crab) and avocado wrapped in seaweed with rice and sesame seeds. Sometimes, it even gets a little mayonnaise on top. Today, you can find it at practically any restaurant or grocery store that offers sushi, but it wasn’t invented in either Japan or California. It acually came to the U.S. from Canada.

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Hidekazu Tojo came to Vancouver from Osaka, Japan, in 1971, before the sushi craze took off in North America. The classically trained chef found work at a small sushi restaurant called Minetta in Japantown, where Canadians mostly ordered spinach salad, tempura and teriyaki chicken. Nothing raw, and certainly no seaweed.

Shortly after Tojo became head chef at a new spot called Jinya, he created a new roll using ingredients that he believed the clientele would actually want to eat. And, since they were skeptical about seaweed, he started making rolls inside out with rice on the outside to hide it. The chef named his crabby creation the Tojo roll, though it’s now universally known as the California roll because it was popular with customers from the Golden State.

Tojo’s accolades don’t stop there. The chef also lays claim to inventing the B.C. roll (barbecued salmon and cucumber), rainbow roll (tuna, salmon and avocado draped atop a California roll), golden roll (crab, scallop, salmon and sweet shrimp wrapped in egg crepe) and spider roll (deep-fried crab, asparagus and avocado wrapped in cucumber crepe).

As with many origin stories, there are others who allege that they actually invented the California roll, including Los Angeles chefs Ken Seusa of Kin Jo in the 1960s and Kanai Noritoshi of Kawafuku in the 1970s. Noritoshi’s head chef, Ichiro Mashita, also claims credit for the invention when he started his own restaurant, Tokyo Kaikan.

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The true creator is beside the point. The California roll paved way for sushi in America, where today, many of us jump at the chance to enjoy raw fish. So whether you’re a fan of sashimi, nigiri or maki, it might be time to order some from the best sushi restaurant in your state.