This year, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will be honouring 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.
After the announcement was made about Tojo, I was asked by some 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 a liar by my beloved minnows.
Today, the California Roll is as well-branded as the Big Mac and as ubiquitous as Ikea furniture in college residences. 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, rice-on-the-outside with plenty of space to work with inside) 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-sounding Caterpillar; even the nostalgic (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”) Rainbow. Thankfully, many of the sushi bars that mass-produced these rolls, including some cute mall chains with their discounted day-olds, 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 was back in favour (read: kappa and tekka). Even still, the California Roll 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 in all myths, origins get muddied. The re-telling of it is, like all snooze-free stories and an effective game of “telephone”, 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 the stuff of 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 Trevor Corson, 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 VW 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 misappropriated ownership 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.