Shunned for being uncultivated, considered by some a taste to outgrow, the California roll—an inside-out combo of avocado, crab (or, more twistedly inauthentic, faux crab), and cucumber—is in truth the epitome of a gateway food.
We have the chefs at Tokyo Kaikan, a downtown spot that leaned toward tiki, to thank for this anti-purist’s dream. In the late ’60s, seeking to familiarize their clientele with the idea of hand rolls, they crafted a slightly denatured artifact that has proved to be a stalwart and unexpectedly of the moment. Sustainability was—and still is—an issue: The substitution of a lime green Hass for tuna was a response to a shortage of (quaint thought!) seasonal bluefin. Accessibility is prized: The California roll might have underplayed its heritage—the sheet of dark green nori seems concealed inside—but it offered an entry into a tradition for many who had never peeked behind noren curtains before.
Today a lineup of cool, creamy-centered disks on a plate is the stuff of nostalgia. But like our Cobb salad or French dip, the California roll will not be relegated to memory. Instead of a corruption, it has come to represent a lean ideal we fell hard for. From the gambit offered to see if we’d bite, it has turned into the tidbit enjoyed by all.