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Who invented the California Roll? (2024 version with Chat GPT & Gemni)

Updated: Mar 25

The original answer

California Roll has become the iconic Sushi item in the US and rest of the world. As far as I know from working with about ten different Japanese/Sushi Restaurants in the US, it is the most popular item on the menu. Even at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, it is one of the most visible Sushi items next to Spicy Tuna and Rainbow Roll.

So, who invented California Roll and how did it become so popular?

This is the story I heard: One day, a Sushi chef at Sushi bar in Los Angeles (little Tokyo) was asked for the special of the day by a regular customer. Since the chef had no special on that day, after thinking for a while, he added avocado, which was “unusual” item at that time, to crab hand roll. The customer liked it so much that it became a regular item on the menu.

Later, I found out that the story I knew was wrong.

It appears now there are two stories (or inventors) for California Roll.

Story 1

The most popular story goes to Ichiro Mashita of Tokyo Kaikan in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, during 1970s.

It is said that Mr. Mashita substituted the avocado in the place of Toro for its rich oily flavor. Traditional Japanese roll is seaweed out and Americans disliked the taste of chewing and texture of Nori seaweed, which led to the invention of “Uramaki”: The inside-out roll.

How did Mr. Mashita think of adding avocado? Another story says that one of his regulars asked him to make Sushi for Caucasians. At that time, most Americans never heard of Sushi, let alone eating raw fish. So, Mr. Mashita thought of Avocado for its low cost and never ending supply throughout the year.

Story 2

Now this came as a shocker to many Sushi fans.

This second story came out in the year 2012: this is the article by The Globe and Mail, “Meet the man behind the California roll” - a Canadian Sushi Chef (he is a Japanese chef living in Canada), Hidekazu Tojo claimed HE is the inventor of California Roll.

According to Mr. Tojo, he thought of using crab for Sushi because fresh fish suitable for Sushi was unavailable in Vancouver when he arrived in 1971.

Also, most of the Westerners disliked eating seaweed. So, he made inside-out roll to hide the flavor. Though, against the Japanese tradition of seaweed out roll many of his customers liked it.

Many of Mr. Tojo’s customers were from Los Angeles. They loved his crab and avocado roll, hence the name California Roll.

I do have to mention that I came across several other stories and inventors of California Roll.

For now, I leave it up to you to decide.

Chat GPT’s answer (2024)

"An engaging and informative image for an article titled Who Invented the California Roll" by Dall•E

The invention of the California Roll is attributed to two main stories, highlighting the complexity and varying narratives in the culinary world.

One account credits Chef Hidekazu Tojo, a Canadian chef who moved to Vancouver from Japan in 1971. Tojo claims to have invented the roll as a way to make sushi more palatable to Westerners who were not accustomed to eating raw fish or seaweed. He created an inside-out roll, with the rice on the outside to hide the seaweed, using ingredients like crab and avocado.

Another widely accepted narrative points to Chef Ichiro Mashita from Tokyo Kaikan, a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, in the early 1960s. Mashita is said to have invented the roll by substituting avocado for toro (fatty tuna belly) due to its similar texture and richness, and creating the inside-out roll to cater to Americans who found nori (seaweed) unpalatable.

Ken Seusa, another Los Angeles chef, and the earliest documented claimant, as well as Chef Tojo with his innovation of the roll and its spread to Los Angeles and beyond, add to the rich tapestry of stories surrounding the California Roll's origin.

Despite these differing accounts, the California Roll has become a staple in sushi culture worldwide, serving as a gateway for many to explore more traditional sushi options. Its creation, regardless of the true inventor, marks a significant moment in the globalization and adaptation of Japanese cuisine.

Gemni’s answer (2024)

The true inventor of the California roll remains a bit of a mystery, with several chefs claiming the title and evidence supporting different perspectives. Here's a breakdown of the main contenders:

Ichiro Mashita: A Los Angeles sushi chef in the 1960s is credited with creating an early version using real crab, cucumber, and avocado, but with the traditional seaweed outside.

Ken Seusa: Another Los Angeles chef from the 1970s claims he created the "California roll" using imitation crab and popularized the now-classic inside-out style.

Hidekazu Tojo: A Vancouver-based chef claims he invented the "inside-out" roll with rice on the outside in the late 1970s and named it "California roll" due to the crab and avocado ("C.A.").

Complicating factors

The earliest documented mention of "California roll" was in 1979, but the ingredients varied.

Seusa's claim was uncontested for decades, but Tojo's version with different origins gained traction later.

Some argue the roll evolved collaboratively in California, not attributed to one inventor.

Ultimately, while we may never know for sure who definitively invented the California roll, understanding these different perspectives offers a richer understanding of its origins and evolution.

My take on this topic

During a conversation with Eric E. Rath, author of "Oishi: The History of Sushi," we explored the origins of Edo-mae sushi and the California Roll. Rath proposed that Edo-mae sushi, attributed to Yohei Hanaya 250 years ago in Tokyo, wasn't the work of a single inventor.

Similarly, the California Roll's invention likely resulted from collaborative efforts across various chefs, rather than a singular creator. This collaborative innovation underscores sushi's evolving nature, showing that even what I considered my original recipes, like the Double Shrimp Roll, could have paralleled creations elsewhere, born from a shared culinary zeitgeist.

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