When I was 10 years old, I had sushi for the first time in America, but it wasn’t at a Japanese restaurant. My first time eating sushi was at Yankee Stadium in New York City, of all places, during a baseball game. Having grown up in a small town with very little international or multicultural exposure, I grew up thinking that sushi was “exotic” -- a food only the most adventurous of people dared to try. Raw fish? Are you crazy?! That felt to me as the general consensus back in the early 2000s when I told people I tried a California Roll as I also came to the realization that I didn’t care about baseball.

For Americans who are hesitant when it comes to trying sushi for the first time, I’d say the California Roll is their gateway sushi. It’s fully cooked, sounds “American,” and is actually pretty tasty. I liked it enough that it led to me trying all different varieties of sushi throughout adolescence: from Dragon Rolls with eel to Uni (sea urchin) gunkan-maki (gunkan being the Japanese word for “battleship,” signifying the roll’s boat-like shape). “This is real Japanese sushi,” I would think to myself... Until years later, I learned my life had been a lie.

Nearly 10 years following my first sushi experience, I studied abroad in Hakodate, Hokkaido in Japan in the summer of 2013. On the evening I met my home-stay family, they offered to take me out for a sushi dinner. And boy, was I surprised. Contrary to my expectations, having grown up with sushi in America, most of the sushi was neatly plated, ovular piles of rice with a sole piece of fish resting on top (what I later learned was called “nigiri” sushi). As for what few rolls I saw, the seaweed was on the outside of the rice. And if that wasn’t enough, the sushi was already plated, and those plates were rotating around the entire restaurant on a conveyor belt. Also, nothing had cream cheese! But still, I tried many of the dishes that slowly travelled by our table with an open mind. “This is real Japanese sushi,” I thought.

Now that I’ve calmed down from my panic that day at the conveyor belt sushi restaurant (known as “kaiten-zushi”), I’ve taken some time to look into the differences between Japanese and American sushi, and how sushi even made its way over to America.

The first sushi restaurant in America opened in Southern California in 1966. It was called Kawafuku. Consisting of two floors, the downstairs area served more beginner-level Japanese food, such as teriyaki and tempura, while the upstairs area was a sushi bar serving sashimi and nigiri. The sushi chef, Shigeo Saito, came all the way from Japan to help introduce authentic sushi to American diners. (I wonder if he was hired through Washokujob?)

But still, you could not find deep-fried rolls or drizzles of spicy mayo anywhere. So how did Americanized sushi come to be? We’ll have to investigate that in the next volume of The Sushi Diaries.

  • Jacob - Washokujob Staff in America