Long Reads

The Little-Known Immigrant History of the California Roll

Behind the most ubiquitous sushi dish in North America.

April 10, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Hidekazu Tojo came to Vancouver from Osaka, Japan in 1971. Young, ambitious, and classically trained in sushi arts, he was a perfect match for Shigeru Hirai, who was looking for a young chef to work with. Hirai offered Tojo a two-year contract at his small sushi restaurant, Maneki, in Vancouver’s Japantown. There weren’t many Japanese restaurants in Vancouver at the time, and even fewer still that served raw fish.

Japanese diners raved about Tojo’s sushi. The local Canadians, on the other hand, only favored the cooked dishes.

"I watched them eat spinach salad, tempura, and teriyaki chicken very, very quickly," Tojo tells me over hot tea at his current restaurant, Tojo's. "But the sushi they refused before they tasted. They didn’t eat raw crab and tuna … raw they didn’t eat."

Given the popularity and ubiquity of sushi today, it's hard to imagine a time when we weren’t eating raw fish, but such was the case in 1970s North America. For Tojo, a trained sushi chef, watching his customers forgo his pièce de résistance, day in and day out, motivated him to make his sushi better.

Tojo on a trip to Alberta (Banff, Jasper, Calgary, Edmonton). Rocky Mountains, c. 1972 or 1973. Photo by Momoko, Tojo's Daughter

But first, he needed to figure out why they didn’t want to try it in the first place.

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“Tojo is legendary here in Vancouver, not just as creator of the California roll but as one of the very best chefs in a very food-centric city. We are so fortunate that he chose to live and work in Vancouver. He would be an outstanding chef anywhere in the world, Paris, New York, Japan. I know people that have travelled great distances just to dine at his restaurant. I have heard many stories about his commitment to his culinary art and loyalty to his peers and customers.”
— Wendy
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Eventually, Tojo moved outside of the familiarity of Japantown and became the head chef at a new spot, Jinya, on the highly trafficked and diverse West Broadway. He struck up a relationship with one of his regulars, a young flight attendant named Mami Yamaguchi, at the now-defunct CPA Airlines. Unlike most of the local Canadians who came to eat at Tojo's restaurant, Mami was Japanese herself; she spoke multiple languages and didn’t shy away from trying Tojo’s sushi, which quickly endeared her to Tojo. She became, in a sense, his cultural translator, taking him to the popular French restaurants at the time, like William Tell, where Tojo noticed Canadians did in fact enjoy seafood, especially local Dungeness crab—when it was boiled.

With Mami’s guidance, Tojo started to explore the local fish markets in pursuit of his most pressing question, "Why don’t Canadians like raw fish?"

Tojo wandered the seafood aisles of Safeway and the local market on Granville Island to see where Canadians were shopping for fish. In contrast to the Japanese suppliers he was buying from, the Canadian markets, it turned out, served their fish with less presentation.

"No decoration, very bad smell. Fish smell," Tojo recounted. "In my training when you go to the market, seafood smells just like watermelon, fresh watermelon, or cucumber smell. Big difference. Over there, Safeway? Ah! Stinky! That's why."

Suddenly the driving question to Tojo’s sushi conundrum had an answer: smelly fish.

Tojo decided to create a sushi that Canadians would like, one that didn’t require the use of the local supply. It wasn't so much a concession as a vestige of his training in Osaka, where he was known for his omakase creations, i.e. serving the customers’ needs with what was fresh and available.

Omakase in Japanese loosely translates to "I’ll leave it up to you." It’s more than just a menu; it’s a ritual built on the ever-changing ingredients in the chef’s kitchen, while still considering the desires of the customer. Many omakase chefs don’t have a predetermined menu in mind; rather, they build the menu as it unfolds, relying on a sense of what works and what doesn’t for each individual customer. It necessitates, in other words, a certain type of trust between the customer and the chef.

What made Tojo’s style of omakase different was that he didn’t feel bound by his locale, North America. Take, for instance, his favorite dish unagi, or barbecued eel, which simply wasn’t available as an ingredient in Vancouver. In order to offer it as a menu item, he instead used the skin of a fish that came to Canada in droves, salmon, seasoning it with the classic sauce used on traditional unagi.

This was, in effect, the way Tojo’s California roll was born: by mixing what was available and accessible to him, with what people in his restaurant actually wanted to eat. Nothing more or less elaborate than that. Tojo doesn’t remember the exact day or circumstance that led to the roll. He does, however, remember many customers complaining about eating seaweed. So one day, he replaced the raw fish with avocado and boiled local crab, inspired by what he saw at William Tell. Then, he hid the nori behind a veil of rice by rolling the sushi inside out. Finally, to really make the roll sing, he added a little mayonnaise.

"We were born very poor," he said. "That time after the war, no food. We put mayonnaise and greens from the garden. That is kind of like Western food, little bit fancy. Before they put only soy sauce. But when we discovered mayonnaise, we put in lettuce, tomato, cucumber—put mayo, I love it!"

To be clear, the California roll on the menu at Tojo’s restaurant is called the Tojo Maki, not the California roll. Tojo had never even been to California at that point in time (a detail he has impressed on me several times). While the name "Tojo Maki" enjoys significantly less notoriety than "California roll," Tojo insists that he was the first to come up with it.

Asked why I should believe his version of the California roll’s origin story, he replied simply, "In Japan you have pride. Good chef never copies. Never."

The competing theory is that the California roll was, in fact, invented in California’s Little Tokyo in the 1970s. According to this version of events, a man named Kanai Noritoshi, who owned a Japanese food import company called Mutual Trading Company, started what was considered the first sushi counter, Kawafuku, and it was there that he invented the "California" maki. Kawafuku’s head chef, Ichiro Mashita, also claimed credit after starting his own restaurant, Tokyo Kaikan.

As for Tojo’s attempts at solidifying his place in California roll history, he did try to trademark his roll in the early ‘90s, after the fact. For this he called on his lawyer, Barry Joe, who has been working with Tojo for 40 years. Unfortunately, for the progenitors of all things wacky maki, trademarking a recipe is extremely difficult to enforce, and extremely costly, at close to several thousand dollars a year for a patent on something like the Tojo Maki.

For the rest of us, the who of who can legitimately claim credit for the California roll feels besides the point. The idea that people want to claim credit for its invention at all is a testament to its ubiquity, and to its ultimate commercial success.

The California roll’s rise didn’t occur without its critics, like chef Hiroko Shimbo, author of The Sushi Experience.

"The California roll is not Japanese sushi because it was created for the convenience of American diners," she said. "We call it ‘sushi,’ but that’s another dish."

I asked Shimbo whether she thought it was authentic.

"No," she explained. "Why is it not authentic is simply the nori, when we make rolls in Japan, is always outside. And of course there is a reason nori is on the outside: to keep the sushi rice moist and juicy (and the nori gets a little chewy), and that’s how rolls are made in Japan."

As Shimbo speaks, I can't help but wonder: Is authenticity not chimerical? Cross-cultural remakes of culinary classics date back to globalization itself. The English soup mulligatawny originated from the Indian dish molo tunny; L.A. galbi came from Korean immigrants in California who made use of a cheaper cut newly available to them; and even tempura exists thanks to the Portuguese (although now it seems so steeped in authentic Japanese tradition that considering it anything else seems preposterous).

"Whenever some new dish comes to one’s country from another country, that food is always transformed into a slightly different form in order to appeal to the people in that new country," Shimbo explained. "In Japan they like soft-textured bagels, so a few companies came up with a soft bagel, kind of a fluffy bagel, and that’s ‘bagel’ to the Japanese. And here in America no one can accept that soft bagel."

Maybe that’s what gave the California roll its staying power. Japanese sushi made a small adjustment: a piece of cooked fish in place of raw, a bit of extra sauce and some nori hidden from view. But what is authentic sushi? Even if it’s created for Americans, is it not still sushi? Maybe not what Shimbo grew up associating with sushi, but sushi nonetheless—without which some of Tojo’s most valued regulars may not have come back for a second or third taste.

This was, in effect, the way Tojo’s California roll was born: by mixing what was available and accessible to him, with what people in his restaurant actually wanted to eat.

But what sushi needs in order to be authentic, Shimbo continued, is "respect of each flavor in each ingredient. When we cook something, we don’t add spices or something to mask. Using oil masks the flavor of ingredients, so the chefs or cooks, whenever they make some dish, try to use a method to keep the true flavor of the ingredients at the end of the preparation. So that when you eat chicken you enjoy the flavor of the chicken, not the sauce."

Some would say that the California roll, at least a good one, does just that. The balanced combination of ingredients, the subtleties of the rice’s temperature, the freshness of the nori, the perfect amount of mayo—all of these are what make a California roll sing. According to Shimbo’s definition, then, maybe there is a version of the California roll that’s "authentic" and another that’s not.

Tojo at Jinya, holding a takeout order for restaurant regular, Paul Belserene. Photo by Momoko, Tojo's Daughter

Tojo’s creative approach to omakase has led to many other types of adaptations, like the Golden Roll, which does away with nori by wrapping sushi fillings in a thin egg crepe. Or his take on tuna sashimi, which comes pre-marinated to avoid the chance of a customer getting the wrong balance of fish to wasabi to soy. Visible in all of Tojo’s menu items is this well-worn habit of "tricking" his customers into trying more and more of his sushi—what may appear to be sushi gimmicks, but which clearly are clever maneuvers to appeal to the palette he’s catering to.

One of Tojo’s most valued regulars, Paul Belserene, couldn’t stomach uni until he tried Tojo’s preparation of it, which now has him hooked. As Belserene remembers it, Tojo "saw his hesitation with uni," so he made him an uni shiso temaki, placing the sea urchin on top of a shiso leaf so its slippery texture would be masked. "The bitterness of the shiso leaf, the crunch of the nori, and the softness and deep umami of the urchin," as Belserene described it, was his "gateway drug into uni."

Thanks to Tojo, you can’t go a mile in any direction in Vancouver today without hitting a sushi restaurant. In 2016, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries honored Tojo as the Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine, recognizing his work as a chef even as he pushed the boundaries of what’s accepted as "sushi."

I asked Tojo if he thought he would have received this award had he not invented the California roll.

"You know, I don't know," he said wistfully. "I put the American palette and Japanese old-fashioned cooking together, little bit. That's my cooking. Because otherwise, people no understand."

5 Comments

Yuki April 18, 2019
Interesting read. I am Japanese and I've never tried California roll until I moved to L.A. about 10 years ago. I'm back in Japan. Nowadays there are lots of Kaiten-Sushi restaurants everywhere in Japan and you can have various versions of California rolls in those places. But never in a real Sushi restaurant. The thought never occurs to a Japanese to order something other than seasonal great raw fish sashimi or sushi. But I like good California rolls, just not as sushi but as a different dish.
 
Arthur J. April 11, 2019
A great and thorough article for those obsessed with sushi and Japanese cuisine in general. Who would doubt the opinion of Hiroko Shimbo? Let us also celebrate other great Japanese American food translators: Kimoko Barber and Elizabeth Andoh. All excellent. Unfortunately when one becomes accustomed to the Japanese approach to food, nothing else tastes quite the same.
 
Eric K. April 11, 2019
I like his style.
 
HalfPint April 10, 2019
Really enjoyable read. California roll is still a favorite of mine. It's a comfort food for my family. My mother moved back to Vietnam as few years ago, returning stateside once a year. Each visit, she asks to have California rolls because she can't get it back 'home' and she misses it.
 
Wendy April 10, 2019
Thank you for sharing this story.
Tojo is legendary here in Vancouver, not just as creator of the California roll but as one of the very best chefs in a very food-centric city. We are so fortunate that he chose to live and work in Vancouver. He would be an outstanding chef anywhere in the world, Paris, New York, Japan.
I know people that have travelled great distances just to dine at his restaurant.
I have heard many stories about his commitment to his culinary art and loyalty to his peers and customers.