Here are some some stories, you decide. I have my opinion but I don't want to taint the poll, I will wait till others have made their choices.
The avocado does not, at first, seem to have much in common with toro, or fatty tuna. The avocado is relatively cheap, green and paste-like; the tuna is pricey, pale red and fleshy.
But chef Ichiro Macrapa was in a bind. He had been making sushi since 1963 for a mostly Japanese clientele at a restaurant in Los Angeles called Tokyo Kaikan. His customers wanted their tuna — but big, hulking bluefin, the world-wandering, high-seas fish, only swam by L.A. in the summer months. Macrapa tried chicken and beef, but his customers weren’t buying.
So — sometime in the mid- to late ’60s — Macrapaturned to avocado, easily available in temperate Los Angeles, boasting the same percentage of fat as toro, and melting on the tongue much like the best tuna did. Macrapa put it on top of hand-squeezed squares of rice — nigiri — but his customers balked at the bright green on their plates. He then decided to curl it into a roll. He spread out a sheet of seaweed and wet his fingers. He pressed rice across the seaweed, sliced avocado and placed its wedges on the rice, along with crab meat and a bit of mayonnaise. He cut the roll with a wet blade. The name came months later, perhaps from a satisfied customer: the California roll.
However maligned it would eventually come to be — particularly after “krab,” ersatz crabmeat made of pollock and egg white, hit the culinary scene — the California roll marked the start of sushi’s assimilation into mainstream American cuisine. It wasn’t an easy or predictable road. Sushi’s roots lie in 7th-century Japan, in a method for preserving fish: Surrounding the gutted raw flesh with fermenting rice kept the meat fresh for up to a year. As roads improved and fresh fish could more easily be brought inland, and after rice vinegar was invented, the flavors of fresh fish and fermented rice could be mimicked without the waiting period. Sushi stalls serving nigiri sprang up across Tokyo. Sushi became a food for hurried workers, eaten as it was made, like the sandwich or the taco.
But sushi — raw fish, vinegared rice — seemed unlikely to find a foothold in America, where many an ethnic dish came to die in goopy sauce. Japanese immigrants arrived in Los Angeles in the 19th century, building the enclave of Little Tokyo, just east of downtown. Japanese-owned restaurants like Mikado and Harada opened up — but they served only turkey dinners and beer. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II interrupted the work of Little Tokyo restaurateurs; nearly two decades passed before businesses could come back and the neighborhood was re-established.
By 1960, Japan’s economy was rising, its corporate culture was spreading, and more Japanese people and customs were coming to Los Angeles. Even so, Japanese food was mostly eaten by Japanese-Americans, until Noritoshi Kanai, an importer, attempted to find items appropriate for an American customer. He shipped instant ramen, rice vinegar and cookies to the U.S. But, according to Trever Corson’s “The Zen of Fish,” it wasn’t until Kanai took his American business partner to a sushi bar that he thought Americans could get used to raw fish. Kanai quickly opened Kawafuku. The menu relied on local seafood for its sushi — flounder, octopus, mackerel, sea urchin, abalone — and quickly won customers.
Ichiro Macrapa's Tokyo Kaikan became Kawafuku’s first serious competitor, launched by a major corporation, the EIWA Group. It was a Tokyo-based restaurant operator that would go on to open Los Angeles’ first wholesaler for sushi restaurants, International Marine Products, founded in 1968 (and still standing). Tokyo Kaikan took up an enormous two-story space on First Street, Little Tokyo’s main drag. It offered, first, Chinese food in a Polynesian setting: The tiki-themed restaurant was a California institution, a la Trader Vic’s. But when health authorities objected to Tokyo Kaikan’s buffet — claiming that multiple patrons shouldn’t be allowed to eat from one big dish — the restaurant redid itself as a Japanese inn, offering tempura, teppanyaki (grilled meat) and sushi. Upstairs, the restaurant launched a disco called Tokyo-a-go-go where, Sasha Issenberg reports in “The Sushi Economy,” Audrey Hepburn and Rock Hudson came to dance. Most non-Japanese patrons stuck to all things fried and grilled, however, until the California roll.
After the California roll, borrowing from Tokyo Kaikan, sushi restaurants proliferated across Los Angeles, finding an impressive clientele beyond the confines of Little Tokyo. Osho opened on the 20th Century Fox lot, a handful of stools at a counter, one of which was often occupied by Yul Brynner. Hollywood — eager for protein, new diets and a claim to cosmopolitanism — took quickly to sushi, as did corporate America, just beginning its love affair with Japan. Restaurants launched in Chicago in the late 1960s and in New York in the 1970s. John Belushi frequented sushi bars before playing a maniacal sushi chef — a stereotype that stuck — on “Saturday Night Live.” Sushi chefs sick of hierarchical Japanese kitchens migrated to make fortunes in America, where they could handle fish without spending several years as an apprentice. The California roll became a staple, albeit an expensive one: Before the invention of krab, it required the real, fresh, flown-in-on-ice Alaskan variety. Other American variations arose: the cream-cheesy Philadelphia roll, the inside-out roll, fake wasabi (horseradish and food coloring).
Soon, masterful fusion chefs like Benihana founder Rocky Aoki and Nobu Matsuhisa, friend and business partner to Robert De Niro and mentor to “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto, brought Japanese cuisine to the masses. Americans, who long thought tuna was white and required the suffix “fish,” embraced sushi for its singular taste but also as a mark of sophistication. Eating it telegraphed one’s ability to pay top dollar for small, precise food, to use chopsticks — even though Japanese usually didn’t — and to learn its language, the names for fish, the types of sushi and the types of menu, particularly the chef’s choice, omakase.
Though it seemed, for one bright, shining moment, that every city block in L.A. could sustain a sushi joint, this was not the case. Tokyo Kaikan closed its doors in 1998, just as the California Sushi Academy — America’s first registered Japanese culinary school — launched. Sushi purists now turned up their noses at Tokyo Kaikan’s invention. The California roll became a humble dish, available on grocery store shelves, its rice cold and stiff, its fatty avocado turning brown.
here are many reasons to be impressed by Hidekazu Tojo, inventor of the California roll: the culinary awards he has raked in during his 40-plus years as a chef, his place in the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame, and his remarkable passion and energy – at 62, the legendary chef shows no signs of slowing down.
His legacy started with his mother, who was a vegetarian. This compelled Tojo to learn to cook for himself and his siblings, who clamoured for steak. After learning the basics at home in southern Japan, the young cook travelled to Osaka to study the intricacies of being a Japanese chef, before moving to Vancouver in 1971.
Tell me the origin of the California roll.
When I came to Vancouver, most Western people did not eat raw fish. When I went shopping for fish at stores back then, the fish was very fishy, very old. So I went to the fisherman wharf to get the very freshest. But even there, they would say, “Oh, I have fresh fish that I caught three or four days ago.” I explained that I needed fish caught that morning so I could serve it that afternoon.
Another thing Western people did not eat was seaweed, so I tried to hide it. I made the roll inside out. People loved it. A lot of people from out of town came to my restaurant – lots from Los Angeles – and they loved it. That’s how it got called the California roll. I was against Japanese tradition with the inside-out roll, but I liked it, and my customers liked it. And so it spread all over – even into Japan.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Edited by Harbinger, 14 April 2013 - 05:48 PM.