Sushi History in America
Often times while enjoying a perfect piece of nigari sushi we don’t even think how a food so different from what we are used to, became such an American staple. So let’s look back and see the history of sushi in the U.S.
Before we reach our modern times, let’s see how sushi came to be in the first place.
Sushi can be traced back to 3rd and 4th century A.D China, where people were using fermented rice to preserve fish. As Buddhism spread to Japan, so did its dietary specialties. People replaced meat with fish. Japanese can take credit for eating sushi the way we are used to – fish and rice together.
The methods of preparation and fish preservation changed dramatically as time went on. With refrigeration, the need for fermentation disappeared altogether and raw fish is now sushi staple. By 1920’s nigiri sushi was loved all over Edo, current Tokyo. Refrigeration enabled sushi spread all over the country and even across the Pacific.
1960s were turbulent times in the U.S. So many things were changing and people became more open to new and exciting. This applied to fashion, human rights, entertainment, music, and definitely food. In 1966 the very first sushi restaurant opened in a small space upstairs of an insignificant building in Little Tokyo in LA. The place served nigiri, sashimi, and various rolls. This is how our national love affair with sushi started. The restaurant was called Kawafuku and is known as the first sushi restaurant.
Noritoshi Kanai moved to U.S. in 1964 to serve as a general manager of Mutual Trading Company, a Japanese import business. Kanai had dreams to introduce Japanese cuisine and spread the word about the goodness it can bring. Kanai and his American partner Harry Wolff collaborated with sushi chef Shigeo saito to open Kawafuku. Saito’s wife was the only wairess at first. The first customers were Japanese businessmen, but they brought their American coworkers and partners along. Pretty soon the restaurant became hot and popular. Hollywood becamse obsessed with healthy food and pushed sushi mainstream.
More restaurants started popping up in California. Things went into overdrive when sushi chef Tokyo Kaikan invented California roll in the 1970s. This showed people that customization is possible and loved here, and it made sushi even more popular with Americans. Menus started reflecting regional preferences and included various toppings, mayo based sauces, and vegetables. Some places preserved the original recipes as concern grew over authenticity and quality of sushi. Many restaurants continued to improvise, cut corners and used regular rice instead of sushi rice, and not train their chefs properly. To overcome these inconsistencies, sushi schools started to open up and train chefs from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities.
Today similar concerns still exist as more and more restaurants are opening up while Japanese chefs’ numbers decline as they don’t want to work in the U.S. as much due to visa and immigration situation. There are plenty of jobs in Japan too. Out of over 4,000 sushi restaurants in U.S only a small fraction is owned by Japanese. Many chefs are American, but well trained in sushi technique and customs.
Even if authenticity is declining, Americans don’t mind that at all. We enjoy our sushi everywhere imaginable – airports, grocery stores, and fine dining places. Menus vary greatly and range from beautiful sashimi to deep-fried rolls stuffed with steak. Sushi has become a popular American foo, and even if it’s often far from its roots, it is still a great option for a portable meal that is healthy and open to creativity.


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