California Roll, Ichiro Mashita, Tokyo Kaikan, United States, 1960s. From Signature Dishes that Matter

Smart things to say about Signature Dishes: California Roll

Aware Americans might not take to authentic sushi, one Japanese chef reinvented the dish for the US market

Is authenticity overrated? Diners in the West often complain that the dishes they are served in Chinese, Indian or other nationally specific restaurants aren’t quite the same as the meals cooked and enjoyed by Indians and Chinese people back in their home country.

However, instead of lamenting those changes, perhaps we should celebrate immigrant chefs’ pluck and ingenuity. That’s certainly the lesson learnt from the story behind the 1960s creation, the California Roll, the dish that introduced many in the US to the exotic delights of sushi.

“To Americans of the era, tuna was grayish-pink and came precooked in a can. Edible seaweed paper was pure science fiction,” explains our new book, Signature Dishes that Matter. “And so chefs who have laid claim to inventing the California Roll, like Ichiro Mashita and his assistant, Teuro, had to consider what the person on the other side of the counter might want.”

Mashita had received some advice prior to moving to the States, though it wasn’t especially well informed. “When Mashita left Japan, his sushi master told him that ‘Americans wouldn’t be able to appreciate sushi. He advised me to put it on skewers.’ 

Thankfully, the chef had other ideas. “He replaced fatty tuna (some accounts say that it wasn’t always easy to source tuna at the time) with the similarly textured avocado that has been so abundant in Southern California since the 1800s, added crab and cucumber, and rolled it ‘inside out’ so that the vinegared rice was on the outside of the roll as opposed to the nori.”

This reinvention took off, with chefs across the country creating their own versions. “This California Roll soon gave way to other novelty rolls, such as the Philadelphia (smoked salmon and cream cheese) and Hawaiian Rolls (avocado, tuna, and pineapple),” explains our new book, “Between 1988 and 1998, the number of sushi restaurants in the US tripled, and California Rolls began being sold in supermarkets.”

Indeed, you can even buy it over in Japan, now. Just ask for kashu-maki; though you won’t find many well-respected Japanese sushi masters making it; they regard it as foreign food!


Signature Dishes that Matter
Signature Dishes that Matter

For more on well-known culinary creations, order a copy of Signature Dishes that Matter here. The book is a global celebration of the iconic restaurant dishes that defined the course of culinary history over the past 300 years. Curated by experts and organized chronologically, it's both a landmark cookbook and a fascinating cultural history of dining out.