The inventor of the California roll has been given the official title of “goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine” from the Japanese government for his work in helping popularize sushi in the rest of the world.
Despite the inside-out roll’s name, the first California roll was made in Vancouver, Canada, not the Golden State. Chef Hidekazu Tojo was born in Kagoshima Prefecture, but moved to Vancouver in 1971. Finding his North American customers reluctant to eat raw fish and seaweed, Tojo decided to hide the seaweed on the inside, and went with ingredients that would be easier for Westerners to enjoy: crab, avocado, and a bit of cucumber (the specimen you see above is a bit of a twist on the original, with the added fish roe). As he told the Globe and Mail in 2012, the dish drew plenty of local customers – as well as a very large amount of customers from Los Angeles. Perhaps these Angelenos really wanted to lay claim to the roll, or the Canadians were just too polite to insist on calling it a Vancouver roll, but California roll it was, and so the name continues to be…
Purists might shudder to think of the crowd-pleasing creation being called “sushi” at all, but it can’t be denied that many of those overseas purists probably had their first taste of sushi at a place where California rolls were served, and Tojo’s popularizing approach to the Japanese standby (It should also be said that sushi’s origins weren’t that lofty in the first place…)
Already a member of the British Columbia Restaurant Hall of Fame, Tojo is one of only 13 people living overseas who have been given the goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine title, which is bestowed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The 66 year old will be presented with the award next week by the Consul General of Japan in Vancouver.