Food History 101

The History of Sushi in the U.S.

By • November 29, 2013 • 2 Comments

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In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.

Today: How America learned to embrace sushi.

Fish from Food52

Fifty years ago, few Americans possessed what we would now consider “refined” palates. The average American family of the 60s, if not chowing down on a T.V. dinner, was probably celebrating the evening repast with Wonder Years-esque meals involving large cuts of meat slathered with viscous brown sauce, a side of mashed potatoes and, if we’re getting fancy, a fried onion-topped green bean casserole. Heavy French food in all its cream-sauced glory still remained in vogue among the elite, and fondue became a popular dinner-party activity (combining three indisputably great things: Bread, melted cheese, and the recovery of lost treasure). Experimentation with Americanized Chinese food like Lo Mein and “Oriental Shrimp” was increasing, but the concept of raw fish would have still been utterly perplexing.  

More: See a recipe for another Japanese staple -- ramen.

Sushi (which actually refers to the seasoned rice on which raw fish is served, not the fish itself) was originally sold as street food in Japan starting around the 8th century. It is said to have arrived in the U.S. in the late 1960s, with the opening of Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Some claim that sushi restaurants opened in America as early as 1950, but Kawafuku put the cuisine on the map, catering to Japanese businessmen and their American colleagues. A small number of sushi restaurants began to open outside the confines of Little Tokyo, and the cuisine gained popularity, especially with Hollywood celebrities. The creation of the now ubiquitous California roll helped to propel sushi forward, as crab and avocado were more palatable to Americans than slabs of glistening raw fish. Cosmopolitan cities like New York and Chicago soon followed suit with sushi spots of their own, and by the late 1980s, sushi was a full-on craze, with an enormous rise in the number of Japanese restaurants towards the end of the decade and into the 1990s.  

Rice from Food52 

Thought to be healthy and nutritious, sushi has achieved permanence and immense popularity in America and is sold at both Japanese restaurants and grocery stores. Of course, though, we've all seen the bastardization of the concept, notably with creations like the Philadelphia Roll -- which combines decidedly un-Japanese ingredients like Philadelphia cream cheese and smoked salmon into a “maki,” or seaweed-rolled sushi. We may deep fry our sushi, adorn it with spicy mayonnaise, and shape it like a dragon, but we Americans can also appreciate the less-is-more aspect of sushi, and shell out hundreds for Omakase (chef’s choice) at exclusive spots around the country.

What's your favorite kind of sushi? Let us know in the comments!

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Tags: history, food history, sushi

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7 months ago Natalie

"Haiku" in Katonah, NY = best sushi I have ever put in my mouth and I've had my fair share.
Favorites: 1) Salmon and avo 2) Yellowtail jalapeno

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8 months ago CelliSean

Yum! I love the things that go with sushi more than the sushi itself (no fish for me).... kappa maki, inari zushi, miso soup and sesame cucumber salad.