Shunned forbeing 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.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine