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California rolls are a well-known type of sushi in the United States, but how does it differ from Japanese cuisine?

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate. On today's episode, we break down the history of California rolls and the impact of Japanese culture on the American palate. Let's dig in.

Check out Sarah Lohman's Book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine below:


There are around 16,000 sushi restaurants across  the United States today.

But 60 years ago, most Americans had never heard of sushi. If  they ate Japanese food at all, it was more likely to be sukiyaki or tempura.

So how did  the California Roll become one of America’s favorite foods? What mistake are we making when we  equate sushi with the freshest fish available? And what role did a smash-hit miniseries  play in changing our national palate?

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History. Sushi has become ubiquitous in The United States, but it’s also undergone a huge transformation  since arriving on American shores.

Now, in an interesting turnabout, sushi rolls  invented in America like the California Roll are actually making a splash back in Japan. First, let’s explain what defines sushi and dig into a little ancient sushi history. You  might assume the term refers to raw fish, but that isn’t so; there are various types  of fishless sushi.

And even though rice usually plays a key role in the dish, there are  examples of rice-free sushi in Japan dating back hundreds of years. In a way, the key  feature of sushi is that it’s sour. Today, that acidity often comes from rice vinegar applied  to the rice, but that wasn’t initially the case.

And despite its important place in the country's  cuisine, sushi wasn’t invented in Japan. PLOT TWIST, I know. Historians debate the exact origin;  one popular theory takes the dish to at least 1600 years ago along the Me(e)kong River,  in what is now landlocked southern China, Laos, and northern Thailand.

The people in this  area used rice to preserve fish. Gutted, whole fish were packed in clay jars with cooked rice. The rice would decay and the fish would ferment, preserving it.

The fermented fish would  have a slightly cheesy, but deeply savory, taste when it was unpacked from the jars. Sushi made its way to Japan by at least the 8th century AD, and by the 1400s, people were  eating the original preparation earlier in the fermentation process, when the rice was slightly  tangy and the fish relatively fresh. By the 1700s, sushi makers were using rice wine vinegar  to replicate the taste of the fermented rice and serving it with fresh fish.

Japanese cuisine came to the continental U. S. in three primary waves: around the  turn of the 20th century, in the 1950s, and again in the 1980s. I say the continental  U.

S. because the story of Japanese food in Hawaii has its own fascinating and largely distinct  history, which could absolutely be its own video. Oh garcon? write that down. Sorry, garcon is what  I call our producer and they do NOT like it.

When talking about the rest of the country,  though, the story basically begins with an influx of Japanese immigration in the late 19th century. Japanese restaurants popped up around the US, usually—but not always—serving Japanese food. There are records of raw fish being served in some of those restaurants—establishments that  mostly catered to people of Japanese descent.

But other places aimed for a broader audience, buoyed  by international interest in Japanese culture. Japanese prints were influencing some of the most  famous artists in Europe and the United States, including Mary Cassat (CuhSOT); what were called  Japanese gardens started popping up in the West; composers were writing operas set in  Japan; and, sure enough, Japanese recipes started appearing in American publications. One widely reprinted 1906 article was called “Dishes Liked By Japanese: Recipes Worth Trying  by the Western Housewife,” which included a recipe for what it calls Japanese sushi.

It begins  with cooking rice. Then, “After boiling about ten minutes uncover the kettle and add any salt  fish. Cook until done, turn out on a platter and pour over it a mayonnaise.” So you have rice,  fish, probably some vinegar from the mayo—it might not have exactly passed for sushi in Japan,  but it could be read as an early example of switching things up for Western palates.

The trend that embraced Japanese culture eventually ended. Anti-Japanese  sentiment started to rise in the states, and just a year after that recipe appeared  the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement between the U. S. and Japan heavily restricted  immigration from Japan, especially amongst men.

People of Japanese descent in America still ate  sushi, but it hadn’t yet become a part of the American mainstream. According to historian  Eric C. Rath, in 1933 a Los Angeles-based Japanese paper called the Rafu Shimpo mentioned  a restaurant and said it would “cater to the Japanese and a few American sushi-eaters.” In the ‘50s, many Americans were resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because of  World War II.

Japan was still widely perceived as “the enemy.” Remember, Japanese Americans had been  unjustly imprisoned in remote concentration camps during the war. Still, the ‘50s saw an influx of  new Japanese immigrants—in particular, Japanese women who had married American servicemen. These women sometimes cooked cuisine from their home and played a big part in integrating  Japanese food into broader American culture.

Sukiyaki, a Japanese hotpot, was the first  trendy Japanese dish in America, gaining renown just after the war. The dish features  slices of beef cooked in a mix of soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin—a sweet rice liquor. Along  with the beef, other traditional ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, negi (sometimes called Welsh  onion), tofu, and noodles, are cooked in little piles and pulled from the heat as each reaches  its ideal doneness.

Small servings are cooked in several rounds, and guests can cook their own  meal to order. The sauce becomes more condensed and flavorful as the cooking continues. Sukiyaki became trendy in the 1950s in part because it was a communal, table-side  cooking event, much like fondues and flambés.

Tempura, lightly breaded and  fried vegetables and seafood, was also popular in America in the mid-century. So was teriyaki, meat marinated in a sweet, soy-sauce based preparation—though at that time in  the United States, teriyaki was often a version of the dish mediated through a Hawaiian tradition  that included pineapple juice in the marinade. We can trace the origins of modern  American sushi to 1950s California, which makes sense: Outside of Hawaii, the West Coast  had the country’s largest Japanese-American population.

California, in particular, had access  to all the ingredients necessary to make sushi: fresh ocean fish, seaweed, and medium-grained,  relatively sticky rice—the “Calrose” variety developed in the 1940s by the California  Cooperative Rice Research Foundation. Japanese-Americans in California were eating  sushi at community events for years, but there’s no evidence that the broader American public  was consuming it. By the late 1950s, though, Japanese restaurants as far from the West Coast  as Oklahoma were advertising sushi as a specialty; the scholar Jonas House later unearthed those ads.

In the early 1960s, Japanese restaurants began to include Tokyo-style sushi bars: stools set at  a countertop where guests would watch the sushi chef work. New York Times food journalist  and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne was excited by international dining and kept tabs  on the city’s numerous Japanese restaurants. He declared Japanese food a trend in New York  after two establishments opened in 1963, noting that “New Yorkers seem to take to the  raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and  sukiyaki.” However, he admitted, “sushi may seem a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates.” But raw fish wasn’t as “far out” for many Americans as Claiborne might have thought.

Ceviche, a cold dish of fresh seafood marinated in citrus juice with roots in Peru, was available  in many Latin-American restaurants. Recipes for it appeared frequently in newspapers and cookbooks. Jewish people in the United States were familiar with “lox,” raw salmon brined in salt, and  Nordic-Americans had gravlax—raw salmon cured with salt, sugar and dill.

Fun sidenote: much  like sushi, gravlax was originally fermented, although now it’s made from fresh fish. The  word gravlax actually literally translates to something like “buried salmon,” a nod to where  the fermentation traditionally took place. Maybe the history that other American groups  had with raw fish helped sushi’s quick rise to popularity.

Maybe it was just too tasty to  deny. But in the mid-1960s, sushi in America began to change course. According to The Story  of

Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Corson, young chefs in Japan, tired of  the rigorous and restrictive traditional culture of sushi-making, were leaving to reinvent sushi  in Los Angeles. One of the first sushi bars in LA outside of the Little Tokyo neighborhood was  called Osho; it popped up in 1970 next to the 20th Century Fox studio and began attracting  a fashionable, celebrity clientele—including Yul Brynner, a lunchtime regular. The California Roll has become emblematic of the shift from traditional sushi served in Japanese  neighborhoods to new “American” sushi rolls served to a broader American public. It was created in  the early 1960s, but which first-generation chef originated it is a matter of debate.

It’s  been credited to Ken Seusa at Kin Jo sushi restaurant near Hollywood, Ichiro Mashita of the  Los Angeles Little Tokyo restaurant Tokyo Kaikan, and even Vancouver sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo. With these different possible creators come different origin stories. Tojo says that  Westerners didn’t find raw seafood or seaweed appealing, so he cooked the seafood and hid  the seaweed.

Mashita’s version says that the California Roll came into being because it was  difficult to find a prized sushi ingredient: toro. In this telling, when chefs couldn't source this  fresh, fatty tuna belly they began substituting local California avocados. High in fat, avocados  melt in the mouth, similar to fatty tuna.

The avocado was mixed with crab meat to give it a  reddish color and fish-like taste to enhance the illusion. Cucumber and ginger were also added,  and it was made into cone-shaped hand-rolls. Later, California rolls were formed into maki  rolls, but with one big change: the roll was made inside-out.

While traditional Japanese sushi  is rolled in a seaweed wrapper, the California Roll was the first-known sushi roll to put rice on  the outside and a hidden layer of seaweed on the inside. The prevailing theory for this change, as  Tojo suggested, is that sushi chefs had observed that seaweed was strange and challenging to their  American clientele; so, the chefs hid it. Later, the California Roll was made with imitation crab  –a paste of ground Pollock dyed red and molded into chunks– so it also contained no raw fish.

Hollywood began to really embrace sushi throughout the 1970s. At the same time, the food got a boost  as Americans were encouraged to eat more fish as an alternative to fatty, high-cholesterol  foods. And, as anyone lucky enough to have tasted their own fish oil pill burp knows,  fish contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

According to Trevor Corson, “Many Americans  discovered sushi as a healthful alternative.” As sushi restaurants spread across  the country in the early 1980s, a cultural touchstone ignited an all-out obsession  with Japan. The Sh?gun miniseries aired over five evenings in mid-September 1980. It was a work  of historical fiction depicting the story of a British sailor’s rise as a political player  in 17th century Japan.

The show was notable because it was filmed entirely in Japan and  all the Japanese roles were actually played by Japanese actors. Previously in American films  and television, Asian roles were often played by American actors in yellowface—think Mickey Rooney  in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a truly offensive and hurtful performance. Sh?gun depicted Japanese  dress, culture, and food with a relatively high level of authenticity previously unseen on the  American screen.

A smash hit, it was watched by more than 30 percent of American households  and earned three Golden Globes and three Emmys. A surprising amount of academic research has  been done on Sh?gun and its cultural influence, and the series was required viewing in many high  school history curricula throughout the 1980s. Also, shout out to all the teachers who  ever played a movie instead of deciding to teach that day.

Looking at you, Mr. Carr. The launch of the Sh?gun series coincided with an economic boom in Japan that brought  many Japanese businesses to the United States in the late ’70’s and early ’80s.

This combination  of gastronomically homesick Japanese businessmen and Americans enraptured by Japanese culture  created a new wave of interest in Japanese food, particularly sushi. Other classic American  sushi rolls were created in this era, like the Spicy Tuna Roll, first made in Los  Angeles in the early 1980s by mixing tuna scraps with chili sauce and rolling the result with  seaweed and rice. Today, the spicy tuna roll is usually sauced with sriracha, which is  produced in the L.

A. suburb of Irwindale, California. Another American sushi creation,  The Philadelphia Roll, is usually credited to Japanese immigrant Madame Saito. Saito taught  sushi classes in Philadelphia, and after dinner at the house of a Jewish friend reportedly came up  with the cream cheese and smoked salmon creation.

In the 20th century, American sushi has only  become more creative and elaborate. Rainbow Rolls are a variation on the California roll that  are wrapped in multicolored fish. Tempura sushi has also become a big trend, often covered  with a cornucopia of toppings and sauces.

And after over 70 years of evolution,  American-style sushi is finally being recognized as its own, distinct sushi culture. In  fact, American-style sushi has begun to make its way back to Japan. According to an article in The  Asia-Pacific Journal, “The sushi that is served in these new-wave American sushi restaurants (mostly  roll sushi with ingredients other than raw fish) is both similar to, and distinctively different  from, most sushi available in Japan.” In one restaurant in Tokyo, Genji Sushi New York, the  signage and menu are partly in English and they serve California rolls, Philadelphia rolls,  Rainbow Rolls and other American classics.

The Journal explains that the Japanese consumption  of these hybrid-sushi rolls is both playful and ironic—it’s seen as something cool and hip  because of the way it deviates from tradition. And the newest thing in sushi may be old fish. Some of the top sushi chefs in America and Japan are aging their fish.

Fresh, raw fish is dry aged  for several days in a cool, dry environment, much like the process to age beef that takes place in  some of the top steakhouses. Enzymes in the fish’s muscles break down proteins and carbohydrates into  amino acids and sugars. An aged fish can be more tender, sweet, and full of umami.

The sushi  fish can further be cured in salt, soy sauce, and konbu (an edible type of kelp) to increase  the savory notes. The process is reminiscent of the original technique of fermenting fish for  sushi, a delicious throwback to sushi’s roots. What is your go-to sushi roll?

Drop it in  the comments below, or just send a delivery to our studio, and I’ll rate them live  on our new show, Justin Eats Free Food. Thanks for watching, and a special thanks to food  historian Sarah Lohman for writing this episode. If you enjoyed it, you should definitely check  out her book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.

We put a link down in  the description below. See you next time.