California rolls are a bit of an enigma wrapped in mystery, then covered in rice. They helped introduce sushi to westerners in the 1970s, even though they contain avocado and crab meat instead of fish. They’re made inside-out, hiding the nori seaweed inside the roll to hide its texture. They were long considered a perversion of traditional sushi, and yet their invention has earned one chef the title of cultural ambassador to Japan. Of course, it would be easier to make sense of these peculiar contradictions if we knew the true origins of the dish, which is difficult because California rolls have somehow been invented at least two times.
Created in California
The first American sushi restaurant opened in Los Angeles, California in 1966. There wasn’t a lot of demand for dishes based around fresh cuts of raw fish, and so the Kawafuku restaurant kept its main kitchen busy with more familiar dishes like teriyaki chicken. Beyond Americans’ concerns with raw fish, there was also hesitation over the use of seaweed as an outer wrapper. While American kids today might be happy to snack on nori on its own, few western diners in the 60s were entirely ready to wrap seaweed around their raw fish without squirming about it.
The first step towards a California roll then was to essentially eliminate the fish. Chef Ichiro Mashita, lacking sufficient supplies of tuna, substituted avocado at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles. Giant green fruit may not seem like a good substitute for tuna, but the rich, fatty flavor and soft texture was fairly successful, especially when paired with crab meat to bring back a bit more of a fishy flavor. While offering Californians something as familiar as avocado was a big move on its own, these rolls didn’t really take off until the rice was moved to the outside of the nori wrapping. This change was fairly blasphemous, as the crisp texture of the nori was normally a point of pride for sushi chefs, but hiding it proved to be the secret of California rolls’ success.
Born in British Columbia
You could say that the rest was history, if not for an alternative history that took place in British Columbia around the same time. Chef Hidekazu Tojo had opened a restaurant in Vancouver in 1971, and immediately ran into some of the same difficulties faced by Mashita in Los Angeles. Truly fresh fish was hard to come by, necessitating experimentation with ingredients like avocado and salmon skin to fill the role of tuna and eel respectively. Customers in Canada were also reluctant to give sushi much of a chance, spurring Tojo to hide nori under a layer of rice in what he dubbed an inside-out roll.
Tojo refers to these rolls as Tojo rolls in his restaurant today, although in the 1970s a steady stream of customers from Los Angeles supposedly earned them the name California rolls. While we may have thus been deprived of a name like the “Angelino roll,” the impact these rolls made was immense. While the alternations to traditional sushi making may have been compromises at first, they truly succeeded at making sushi accessible to a much wider audience. In recognition of his continued innovation, Chef Tojo was named one of just 13 cultural ambassadors of Japan in 2016, lending further weight to his version of the birth of California and other inside-out forms of sushi.
My fourth-grader asked: So are avocados from California?
Unlike the strangely undocumented history of California rolls, we do have a pretty good idea about where avocados got their start. They’re originally from Mexico, although avocado pits have been found buried alongside mummies from 750 BC as far south as Peru. Those mummies probably didn’t enjoy the fruit too much though, as the trees weren’t cultivated until 500 BC.
Modern avocados were brought to California in 1871, with a variety of varieties vying for people’s plates until the 1950s. Today’s most popular variety, Haas avocados, got their start in 1926, traceable to a single tree in La Habra Heights. The tree died in 2002, and while it’s not exactly helping bridge cultures, some of its wood is being preserved for commemoration.
Source: Who Invented The California Roll? by Michelle Woo, OC Weekly