These days, sushi is everywhere: the strip mall, the airport terminal and even your local supermarket. A spicy tuna roll is as easy to come by as a hot dog or hamburger. But it wasn’t always this way: as ubiquitous as it is now, sushi is a remarkably recent addition to the American diet. Although sushi in some form has been part of Japanese culture for well over a thousand years, it didn’t make it to American shores until 1966.
The 1960s were the ideal time for sushi to make an appearance on the dining scene. World War II ended nearly a generation before, and young gourmands were ready to be introduced to a totally unique cuisine. While the appeal of raw fish and cold rice might have been lost on their parents, cosmopolitan twenty-somethings sought out new foods. That was especially true in swinging Southern California, where the nation’s first sushi restaurant opened in 1966.
Named Kawafuku, the restaurant was located in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. It wasn’t just a sushi joint, though. The bottom floor was a Japanese restaurant, serving more accessible dishes like teriyaki and tempura dinners. But the top floor was a sushi bar, with a sushi master named Shigeo Saito brought from Japan to help introduce diners to the intricate delicacies of traditional sushi. Saito’s wife was the only waitress at the bar, and together they presided over a bustling hotspot in the Los Angeles dining scene.
Kawafuku proudly served traditional sushi: sashimi, nigiri, with perhaps a light swipe of wasabi and genuine soy sauce. Mango cream cheese rolls, deep-fried tempura battered rolls, and wasabi mayos were nowhere to be found. The first step towards an American style of sushi came in the 1970s, when a sushi chef at Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles came up with the idea for the California roll. The chef created the roll as a seasonal menu change: the normal maki roll he served was a simple one made with fatty tuna belly and scallions. But tuna was a seasonal fish in the ‘70s, so he turned to avocado in an effort to provide the same mouthfeel and luscious texture of a piece of tuna. Crab replaced the fish flavor of the tuna.
This early California roll was still served in the traditional maki style, with a sheet of crisped seaweed rolled around the outside of the rice. But this proved a little too adventurous for most of Tokyo Kaitan’s clientele, and the seaweed was soon moved to the interior of the roll where it provided taste, but no crunch. This simple move was perhaps the most symbolic for the future of American sushi. While generations of Japanese chefs had prided themselves on the proper way to crisp a delicate sheet of seaweed, moving it to the inside of the roll rendered that skill unnecessary. As the ‘80s rolled in and the sushi craze truly hit America, chefs took even more liberties with American ingredients and flavors. Suddenly, rolls could be filled with anything: cream cheese, flavored mayonnaise, cooked fish and even fruits!