Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recently honoured the great Japanese-Canadian Chef, Hidekazu Tojo, for inventing the California Roll. His eponymous restaurant is one I recommend to anybody visiting Vancouver, and his signature rolls, including Pacific Northwest and Great BC, are some of the finest locally-sourced makimonos anywhere. He is also one of the bonafide innovators of omakase in North America, when the diner at a sushi bar leaves the selection of small dishes in the chef’s hands. In Toronto we have Kaji and Hiro, the Alpha and Omega of local sushi chefs, successfully striking that right balance between nurture and nature. But Omakase in our land-locked city is an achingly serious conundrum because we are thousands of miles from the three coasts, where a chef in closer proximity, like Tojo, can tap into the wealth and variety of fresh seafood, not only along his B.C. coast, but from where he stands, just a stone’s throw away in Japan’s Tsukiji Market.
Soon after the announcement was made about Tojo, I was asked by some local news agencies to comment on the “inventor of the California Roll”. And because my students do a version of it in my Making Makimonos class, I sometimes share the story about its origins. So, I thought I would throw my two-cents into the tank and clear the record so as not to be perceived as promoting fake news by my beloved minnows.
Today, the California Roll is as recognizable a brand as the Big Mac and as ubiquitous as Ikea furniture. A sushi bar in North America will not succeed without some variation of this money-making maki on its menu. In the late 1990’s, when the war against the hosomaki (a traditional Japanese roll, where a maximum of four ingredients are used, and wrapped in nori- roasted seaweed wrap) was declared, sushi chefs with little classical training began to pave the New Road for the Roll. Every imaginable ingredient under the sun was shoved between a sheet of nori and rice. These uramaki (American-made, larger-than-life-rice-on-the-outside-rolls) could have as much as eighteen ingredients in them, and were christened with all kinds of attention-grabbing names: the ominous Red Dragon; the unappetizing Caterpillar; even the nostalgic (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”) Rainbow Roll. Thankfully, many of the sushi bars that mass-produced these rolls have been shuttered, and a new wave of neo-conservative, classically-trained chefs have taken their place. Sushi bars began the march back to its roots, which meant the hosomaki inched its way back into favour (read: kappa and tekka). Even still, the California Roll has remained a staunch staple.
My favourite variation is the California temaki (cone-shaped handroll), which is delicious with less vinegary rice and a firmer avocado because the shredded shirimi (imitation crabmeat) and softness of the rice demands textural contrast.
And, of course, what would anything from California be without two slices of “just-like-my-grandma-used-to-bake-it” bread bookending it? Enter the California Roll Sandwich for those who don’t believe (in spite of the evidence of my elbows and knees after taking a bite of it) that gluten causes inflammation. It’s a homage to the great Alice Waters reincarnated as a Japanese sushi chef.
The origin of the California Roll has petrified into myth; and like all creation myths, origins get muddied. The re-telling of it is full of drama and suspense, with a dose of shifting invention for flavour. And as proudly Canadian as I am, as much as I believe he is the cream of the crop in the broadening landscape of fine sushi chefs in our country, the story of Tojo inventing the California Roll is the merely another muddled creation myth.
The Californians invented it, of course.
The name of the roll was not intended for ironic effect, and the sober story is well-documented. For starters, my friend Casson Trenor, the writer and sustainable seafood activist, wrote a bestselling book about sushi, and in it he also discusses its origins.
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It is the 1960’s in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. The restaurant is called Tokyo Kaikan, one of the first tempura bars in America. It also had a small sushi bar. Besides the many Nehru-jacketed, love-beaded, tie-dyed hippies disembarking from their hippy vans, TK’s clientele was otherwise Japanese businessmen, and they all longed for the rich flavors of toro– the fatty belly part of the bluefin tuna, which was prized back home. There was little of this to be had in California. What was readily available, however, were truckloads of fresh avocados crossing the Mexican border. With almost a third of its content being fat, avocados offered the texture and melt-in-your-mouth qualities of toro. So, in an inspired moment, Ichiro Mashita, the sushi chef at Tokyo Kaikan, sliced some ripe avocado and blended it with chopped boiled shrimp to give the mixture the reddish coloring of tuna meat. Later, due to prohibitive costs, he switched from shrimp to shirimi (made sausage-like from non-usable bits of white fish), which until then was tossed to the seagulls from the docks of Cannery Row in Monterey. It is still used today. Finally, to hide the cheap quality of the nori that was being used, he turned the roll inside-out, to keep it (forgive me) under wraps.
These two innovations (replacing tuna belly with avocado and putting rice on the outside) rocked the sushi world almost as much as Prince hating sushi shook the Rock world. Purists back in Japan mocked the roll for creating simulated flavors and deemed the hiding of the nori sacrilegious. Americans, however, preferred not to see the “black paper”, as their palates were not used to the taste of roasted seaweed.
So began our undying love affair with, not to mention the misappropriation of, the California Roll.
And despite nay-sayers and tongue-waggers of recent years, this Roll-To-End-All-Rolls has taken on iconic status. And like some of the other great American culinary ideas, from Spaghetti-and-Meatballs to Philly Steak to the bafflingly un-Chinese Egg Foo Young, the California Roll is sure to endure the real test: Time.
In the end, who really cares who “invented” it? Let’s celebrate and champion our great Canadian chef. When you make it as well as Tojo does, you may as well take the credit for it. It is, after all, just a roll. But allow me this final nugget of truth: some of the students in my classes rock it, too.
2018 was a milestone year for us. We surpassed the 20K participant mark. For ten years, we have been creating memorable team-building sushi workshops for some of North America’s great organizations. This video is a sampling of some of the 300+ we have been proud to serve. Thank you! #SushiWarriors #JustRollWithIt
To each and every one of you who attended our classes in 2018- Thank You! 2018 was a milestone year for us because of you!
You have also played such a vital role in helping us pay it forward, especially to youth in vulnerable communities and with the help of so many of our city’s great institutions. Thanks for carrying us on your shoulders!
We hope you will continue your great journey by carrying peace and compassion in your hearts EVERY day of 2019. Let Du Lin’s face be a reminder of what peace and compassion looks like. Happy New Year!
As for those of you interested in attending the best party in town, we roll out the red carpet for you! Welcome!
CTV News covers our own Chef Sang on his #giftingkimchi campaign to the courageous civilian first-responders of the van attack in North York aka #NorthKoreatown. He did two drops of kimchi this day: one to the employees of Capital One (who held a private sushi class the very week of the attack); the other to Tiffany Jefkins, a CPR instructor, who was at the wrong place at the right time. #heroeswedeserve
Working with children in high-risk, low-income neighbourhoods is the raison d’être of Sushi Making For The Soul. It was founded by Chef Sang to raise awareness around childhood poverty in the GTA, as well as meaningfully engage children in the basics of culturally-relevant food literacy. Making sushi in a class environment was the vehicle to get the message out. During the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Chef Sang will conduct four workshops with children from Toronto’s Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhoods. Each workshop will teach children how to make a healthy Korean dish on a tight budget, as well as discuss issues around food waste.
This is an incredibly fun video of Chef Sang and Veronica assembling a gargantuan spicy salmon roll! It is simple to make and delicious, a party activity. Also, if you want to know how Chef Sang prepares his (no-longer-secret) sushi rice, the one he uses in his classes, watch this video.
Hangawi, also known as Chuseok (추석), falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, an important national holiday in Korea. To second-generation Korean-Canadians, it is simply referred to as “Korean Thanksgiving”. This year, Hangawi runs from October 3rd-5th, when the moon comes into full bloom.
As a child, I remember extended family members gathering at my grandparents farm, near Suwon, bearing gifts, platters of half-moon rice cakes (송편), and a year’s worth of stories. It was a festive time, with plenty of activities to keep the children busy, but also a time when the spirit of our ancestors were honoured in elaborate ceremonies, with everyone donning elaborately vibrant hanboks (한복).
Immigration to Canada, with its familiar and urgent contingencies, brought an abrupt halt to all that. Assimilation meant the end to those sweet and savoury rice cakes, and the lunar calendar, in favour of a curiously oversized fowl with its legs poking the air, and precisely at dinnertime every second Monday of every October. For the first five years in the new country, rubbery turkey meat and globs of tepid gravy from a can is what awaited us at our cousin’s house. Each year we exercised our imaginations to avoid attending that dreaded meal.
But times change. With practice, we learned how to keep the turkey moist, but by then some of us kept turning our heads back. The Prodigal Son was homesick.
The fifth annual Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017: Hangawi was held within walking distance of Toronto’s original Koreatown, where so many of the first wave of Korean immigrants to our country sought refuge and some semblance of collective remembering. Artscape Wychwood Barns, a multi-faceted community hub, is, like the event itself, a unique merging of the old with the new. Hosted by the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Toronto, it was a lavish celebration of both traditional Korean cuisine (한식) and Korean-inspired contemporary dishes – a meeting of the landed-first and born-second generation Koreans.
Music, with one eye looking back and the other looking forward, accompanied the festivities. From a traditional drum disruption and the formal 12-stringed gayageum (가야금), to a Canadian version of K-pop, vaguely nostalgic sounds filled the halls.
But it was the main course that the 350+ guests came for: Korean food. And lots of it. Staples including bibimbap (비빔밥) and kimchi (김치) and japchae (잡채: sweet potato starch noodles) were offered in abundance by the three major Korean supermarket chains in the GTA (P.A.T, Galleria, HMart), as well as a spectacular buffet of some of Korea’s finest traditional dishes by Seoul House Restaurant.
Over the years, there has been a welcome increase in the numbers of non-Korean guests attending the annual event. The role of Korean cuisine has finally caught up to the other “soft technology” exports of South Korea, all of which came in the form of Hallyu (Korean Wave), particularly from the K-Pop music, TV drama, and movies sector.
I gave a talk about Hangawi and demonstrated the preparation of seasonal apple-pear kimchi, sharing with the audience the true spirit of Korean cuisine: fermentation. Without this labour-intensive method of food preservation, it is virtually impossible to imagine what a Korean dining table would look like. Fermentation has become the latest go-to word in health and wellness circles, but it has served a unique function and purpose in Korean cuisine for thousands of years. Yes, it is good for your digestive tract. Yes, capsaicin, the active ingredient in the most recognized of Korean seasonings – the red chile pepper – is an effective remedy for pain, not to speak of obesity; but it’s sole purpose has always been to produce nutrient-rich food during the long Korean winters, when fresh ingredients were scarce – mothers over hundreds of generations have understood this. And this idea has moved many of us to pass these traditions along while also looking for methods and ingredients in our backyards to harmonize with it.
I invited two talented second-generation chefs to join me at the event, both of whom have been pushing the envelope on Korean-Canadian cuisine over the past few years. Jane Jhung of Lee Nam Jang Restaurant, reimagined kimchi pancakes (전) with good ole fashion Canadian bacon; and Jongwan Kim of The Korean Kitchen, took a torch to his bulgogi (불고기) and gave it a classic French baguette twist to it. Both were huge hits and I am very proud of their continued efforts to move forward while gently tugging along our shared culinary history.
This was a memorable night, with all those in attendance intent on celebrating one of our significant moments. It did much to positively illuminate Korean culture, our people, and its food. Time to put down the daily papers, turn away from the internet news sites. Rendezvous Korean Cuisine 2017 revealed to those whose eyes may be clouded by current affairs, what the true spirit of being Korean looks like.
Honourable Consul General Kang and Consul Jeon, the Cultural attache, along with his assistant, Grace Ki, and their team of staff and volunteers, should be commended for creating an evening like no other in our city, our country. Because of this night, and thanks to them, we are all proud to be Koreans today.
As for me, it’s a kind of homecoming, a return to my culinary and spiritual roots. Sure, if you wish…like Odysseus looking toward Ithaca. And like those Greeks of old, we Koreans speak our own variation of the proverb: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine by thy food.”
This extraordinary event has been a healing journey for many, especially for me.