Red, White, and Blue Rolls: The History of Sushi in American Dining
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Masa is a three-star Michelin restaurant located in Manhattan, New York. It seats only 26, features a hinoki wood bar (which costs more than a quarter of a million dollars), and is served omakase-style. This means that customers cannot order from any set menu, but instead, each and every dish is chosen, prepared, and presented by master chef Masa Takayama. Just one dinner at Masa will cost $595, drinks not included. Masa might be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but sushi as a whole in the United States has a reputation for being cool, swanky, and hip. It is associated with taste but health, with luxury but affordability (unless dining at Masa that is). So how did this originally Japanese dish of fish, seaweed, and fermented rice become so popular in America?
Chef Masa Takayama at work
At the start of the 20th century, America was already a melting pot of cuisines. Patrons could feast on Italian spaghetti, Swedish meatballs, Jewish brisket, or Chinese Chop Suey (myth-buster: this dish was invented by Chinese immigrants rather than an authentic Chinese dish itself!). Even so, most Americans were either unaware of or hostile towards Japanese people, culture, and cuisine. Matters were made worse in 1924, when The Johnson-Reed Act barred Asian immigration to the United States, and in 1941, when Americans were fighting a full-fledged war against the Japanese and Axis Powers. Only once these international tensions had dissipated could Americans appreciate Japanese dining and sushi in particular.
Chinese chop suey that isn't Chinese at all
By the 1960s, such a time had come. Japan had finally economically recovered from the war, and U.S legislation had repealed the racist immigration laws of decades prior. So, in 1966, chef Shigeo Saito immigrated with his wife from Japan to Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, to run a sushi bar at the restaurant Kawafuku. The venture proved to be a smashing success, although mostly among Japanese immigrants who craved authentic cuisine from their native home. Yet sushi's popularity did not stay constricted among the Japanese immigrants for long. More and more sushi bars opened, even outside of Little Tokyo. Hollywood celebrities began to frequent these exotic dining destinations, and in doing so, brought sushi into the national spotlight with a halo of glamour.
Kawafuku in the early 1970s
Also in the 1960s, a Minnesotan researcher named Ancel Keys studied the relationship between diet and heart diseases in seven countries. Keys noticed much higher rates of cardiovascular disease in Western cultures than in the Mediterranean regions and Japan. He concluded that diet- particularly saturated fat- was to blame and advised that Americans cut back to prevent heart disease. Keys promoted what we now call the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and grains with meat, fish, and dairy as occasional supplements. Sushi contains a little fish, but alongside seaweed, rice, and vegetables. It meets the Mediterranean diet prerequisites while still allowing Americans to enjoy animal protein.
The Mediterranean Diet promotes fish as a better alternative to other animal protein sources
As with many other international cuisines, Japanese sushi gained popularity in America by becoming a bit of a hybrid. Chefs incorporated replaced many ingredients in a sushi roll with traditional American foods. This way, dinners could still venture into a new cuisine with a sense of culinary familiarity. Just consider the California role, invented in the 1970s, which features avocado, a fruit grown in California, crab instead of fish, and has seaweed on the inside. In Japan, sushi is traditionally wrapped in seaweed, but many Americans found seaweed unappetizing. By hiding it within the role, they could still enjoy the taste without being visually dissuaded. Other American-born rolls include a Philadelphia roll, stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese and smoked salmon, the spicy tuna roll, which features tuna blended with chili sauce, or tempura rolls featuring a crunchy fried fish at the center. Many of these roles were later brought back to Japan as whimsical American creations. Yet, as delicious as they may be, by no means can they be considered authentically Japanese.
A typical California roll. Notice the rice on the outside.
With the stars eating it, nutritionists recommending it, and new rolls with recognizable ingredients, sushi became a cultural food icon in America. Just consider Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club (1985) bringing sushi as her lunch to detention, or Charlie Sheen in Wall Street (1987) eating sushi on his date. Sushi’s popular appeal can be seen off the screen as well. Today, there are over 4,000 sushi restaurants in the United States all across the country. These include high-end omakase establishments, like Masa, and all-you-can-eat sushi buffets with a discount price for low quality and high quantity rolls. So yes, sushi might not be originally American, but nevertheless, it has become a prominent feature in American food culture.
Molly Ringwald eating sushi in the cult favorite The Breakfast Club (1985)