The California roll is a staple at sushi restaurants around the U.S. No matter where you order it, you’ll find pretty much the same three ingredients — cucumber, avocado and crab (sometimes imitation crab) — rolled up in seaweed and rice.
The roll’s provenance isn’t as well known as its ingredients, but the most widely accepted origin story takes us pretty far from California — and more than 4,500 miles from Japan, for that matter.
The California roll is widely reported to have originated in Vancouver, Canada. Hidekazu Tojo came to Vancouver in the early ’70s and started working at one of the city’s only sushi restaurants, reports Food52. At that time, the average diner liked tempura and teriyaki dishes, but wasn’t really interested in raw fish, Tojo told the publication.
People were interested, however, in eating cooked crab. So he crafted the roll using cooked crab, avocado and cucumber.
The other thing Tojo did to cater to diners’ tastes was turn the roll inside out, with seaweed hidden underneath a layer of rice. Traditionally, seaweed is wrapped around the rice and fish fillings of maki.
“In Japan, people [were] bashing me,” Tojo said in an interview with Great Big Story. “But people like it.”
The dish is still available today at Tojo’s restaurant in Vancouver, but you won’t find it listed as “California roll” on the menu. It’s called Tojo Maki.
So where did the name “California roll” even come from? Tojo attributes it to a broad generalization by Japanese media who wrote about his new creation. Even though there are large Japanese communities along the whole West Coast, “they cover everything ‘California’ in Japan,” Tojo told Insider.
The restaurant also started to draw large crowds from Los Angeles, reports Culture Trip, which may have contributed to its California name.
But there’s also another sushi chef, Noritoshi Kanai, who claims to have invented the roll in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles Times profile credits him with popularizing sushi in the U.S. through his Japanese food import business.
But Tojo swears that despite the name confusion, the dish we know today as the California roll was created 50 years ago with his own two hands.
“In Japan you have pride,” the chef told Food52. “Good chef never copies. Never.”