Course:HIST 104/California Roll

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Topics in World History
HIST 104
Section: 99A
Instructor: Joy Dixon
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Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
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The original type of sushi was first developed in Southeast Asia as a way of preserving fish in a time where there was no refrigeration. 1. The method of preserving fish was “first to cure it in salt and then to ferment it. [...] allowing fish to ferment together with cooked rice resulted in an interesting taste and pleasing texture. Sushi had been invented.”1 The fermentation of salted fish with rice is first documented in 4th century China. However, though the actual origins of sushi are not known, it is believed that Japan became acquainted with this process in the 9th century as consumption of fish had become commonplace and preservation was necessary.1 This preservation was essentially a method of “pickling” which occurred once the fish remained pressed within the rice for several weeks during which time the lactic acid was produced by the rice and caused the fish to be pickled.2 Nare-zushi, created over one thousand years ago in Japan, translates as “aged sushi” which is a “cooked rice and fermented salted fish” combination. At that earlier time it was called “funa-zushi”, funa being golden carp. 1 “Nama-zushi” was the sushi which resulted from an even shorter, one month, fermentation in the 15th and 16th centuries which means “raw sushi” 1 Sushi as we know it has some origins to ”nama-zushi” which is fermented even faster by a rice vinegar additive. 1 Rice vinegar to cooked rice was prepared within 24 hours and was named haya-zushi.1 The addition of rice vinegar in the 17th century reduced the required fermentation time and gave a good taste to the sushi. 2 “The fermentation period was shortened to just a couple of hours with the introduction of hako-zushi [...] prepared by placing a layer of vinegared cooked rice together with filleted fish in a small wooden box which compresses the rice. To serve, the resulting block of fish and rice is cut into slices.” 1 In early 18th century Japan, raw fish was added to sushi rice and was served immediately, which was the creation similar to what we know as sushi today. 3 This sushi is known as nigiri-zushi. “Plain “sushi” known to the world today, is a combination of vinegar flavored rice and the Japanese sashimi. All the original ingredients were local to the Edo bay, or the present Tokyo bay.” 4


While sushi has been in existence for over centuries, it wasn't until the late 19th century that Sushi became popular in the West. The prospect of eating raw fish and seaweed was not at all attractive to the western palate. The early 19th century brought an influx of Japanese immigrants to the west coast of America. The growing immigrant population created a greater demand for Japanese cuisine, triggering immigrant chefs to open restaurants that appealed to the appetite of the Japanese-American. The Japanese-American customer proceeded to introduce friends and business contacts to their cultural delicacy. However, adaptations had to be made to appeal to the American palate, one of these adaptations was the California roll. 5 The explosion of healthy diet fads in the 1980s brought even more fame and popularity for Sushi as a healthy food option due to its high levels of Omega-3. By the late 19th century, Sushi had become mainstream, and could be purchased in an increasing number of take out Japanese restaurants, or packaged in supermarkets. “American sushi” had been developed and was being produced, with avocado, imitation crabmeat, cucumber, mayo, and an infinite number of new combinations or ingredients that could be marketed and sold. Today Sushi is one of America’s most popular fast food and take-out options alongside hamburger and pizza, making it the only Asian food item to gain such international prominence and become an integral part of the Western food palette.


The term sushi literally means vinegared rice. It has been said that vinegar is still added to the rice to authenticate the fermented rice flavour of original sushi. While preserving the natural fermentation process of rice, the innovative Japanese chefs came up with the first westernized version of sushi, called the California Roll. California Roll is a sushi roll which is made from vinegar rice, seaweed paper, avocados, crabmeat (or Pollack), which is a fish found in the Bering Sea which is near Alaska, and cucumber.6 When the Japanese brought sushi to Los Angeles, it originated as a maki roll made with toro (fatty tuna) which was eventually transformed into the California roll by substituting avocado in place of the toro, “because the fish was seasonal, the thought was to create a roll that had the similar texture and flavor as toro; by substituting avocado when the fish was out of season”.7 Originally the seaweed was on the outside of rolls; however, this was changed to accommodate the Americans displeasure with the taste of the seaweed paper by putting the rice on the outside of the seaweed.


Technical advances, such as social media networking, the web, faster and more accessible means of communication, have made the world a smaller place. Overcoming geographical distances with new technology has contributed to the globalization of products such as the California roll. In the late 19th century, the Japanese economy boomed, and Japan entered international commerce with products such as Sony and Toyota. As part of the ripple effect of this marketing boom, Japan earned a name for itself as a nation, in a sense, Japan’s introduction to the international commercial market put Japan “on the map” for western consumer nations. There was an increased interest in Japanese products and Sushi establishments began to pop up in Europe and many other international hubs.8 The adaptability of Sushi that allows for an unlimited possibility of new combinations enabled these Sushi establishments to make a product that could appeal to any palate. Because of the obvious success of the “American model” of Sushi in America, it was this version of Sushi that tended to be emulated in other countries, so that “The California Roll” can be found in restaurants all around the world, from Dublin to Dubai.9 In Australia and New Zealand, for example, teriyaki chicken and avocado are the most popular types of Sushi. 8 Hybridization and localization have made the California Roll a global success in the food industry.


It was in the early twentieth century that Japanese immigrants introduced sushi restaurants outside of Japan to “places such as Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Sao Paulo”.10 It was not long until the first ‘Americanized’ sushi roll was developed in Los Angeles by a Japanese chef to accommodate the locals’ preference in tastes alongside the availability of local ingredients, and was named the California Roll. With the California Roll leading the way, sushi has become a very popular “Japanese” cuisine globally, where the ingredients are constantly being experimented with and new trendy names being given to the evolving “California Roll” creations. The explosion of popularity of Sushi is recognized as a Japanese cuisine globally, and this icon puts Japan on the map as a culturally recognized entity. “Japan’s long-term object of desire and source of national inferiority complex is now bowing in front of sushi power. We no longer need to play and excel in their game to be acknowledged and accepted. With sushi, we are making them play our game.”8 The fact that the California roll is a hybridization of Japanese cultural food and local American taste allows us to experience in this concoction a symbol of cultures in contact. By eating the California Roll, anyone anywhere can feel they are experiencing a piece of Japanese culture; as well as, California culture, while they indulge in this cuisine, and the Japanese are connecting with cultures across the globe through a historical icon such as a sushi roll.


  1. Mouritsen, Ole G. “What is sushi?.” SUSHI Food for the eye, the body & the soul. Springer US, 2009. 14-23
  2. Nolen, Jorie, Sushi the Japanese “Snack”-1000 Years of History. Quoted in Hsin-I Feng, C. (2012). The tale of sushi: History and regulations. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, Vol. 11, 205.
  3. Omae, Kinjiro and Tachibana, Yuzuru, The Book of Sushi, 1988. 33-46. Quoted in Hsin-I Feng, C. (2012). The tale of sushi: History and regulations. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Vol. 11, 206
  4. History of Sushi, at
  5. Matthew Allen, Rumi Sakamoto, “Sushi Reverses Course: Consuming American Sushi in Tokyo” in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus,
  6. “” California Roll Recipe and Alaskan King Crab Meat. Accessed November 16, 2013.
  7. “California Rice” Cuisine: History of Sushi-Sushi Pioneers. Accessed November16, 2013.
  8. Matthew Allen, Rumi Sakamoto , “There’s something fishy about that sushi: how Japan interprets the global sushi boom” in Japan Forum Vol 23, Iss. 1, 2011
  9. Lexi Dwyer, “Deconstructing the California Roll” in Gourmet Live, 03.07.12.,
  10. Jay McInerney. “Raw.” The New York Times. June 10, 2007. (Accessed November 16, 2013).