Japan Honors the Creator of the California Roll

Some may see it as an affront against sushi, others see an ambassador for culture

California Roll
C.K. Tse via Flickr

For many North Americans, their first introduction to sushi was most likely the ubiquitous California Roll. Over the last few decades, what was once a rare food has spread in popularity to the point where variations on the dish can be found everywhere from high-end sushi restaurants to just about every grocery store chain. Now, the chef credited with creating the California Roll is being granted one of Japan’s highest honors: cultural ambassador. He becomes just one of a handful of foreigners who have been given the title, CBC News reports.

If you haven’t sampled a California Roll yourself, it’s a pretty simple recipe: sushi rice, dried seaweed, a bite of avocado, a fair-sized chunk of crab, and occasionally a few slivers of cucumber or radish. While it may be far from the fanciest dish on the menu, it is a surprisingly important one, as some credit its creation with helping popularize sushi in the United States, Nick Rose writes for Munchies. But although some sushi snobs may turn their nose down at the commonplace California Roll as inauthentic, that was never its creator’s intention.

When sushi chef Hidekazu Tojo opened his first restaurant in Vancouver in 1971, sushi was not nearly as ubiquitous on the menu as it is today. Few Canadians and Americans had a taste for hand rolls and sashimi, and Tojo quickly realized he needed to adjust his menu to suit local taste buds. Not only did he struggle to find sushi-grade fish for his kitchen, but he had to fight against his customers’ reluctance to try new things, Madeleine White reports for The Globe and Mail.

“Another thing Western people did not eat was seaweed, so I tried to hide it. I made the roll inside out. People loved it,” Tojo tells White. “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.”

As unorthodox as Tojo’s creation may be, it still draws on traditional Japanese culinary techniques and has arguably helped raise the profile of Japanese food around the world. After decades of making the iconic sushi rolls, Tojo is becoming one of only 13 overseas ambassadors for Japanese cuisine, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports. For someone who helped hook millions of North Americans on sushi, there are few higher honors.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.