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The Chef Who Created the California Roll Is Being Honored by Japanese Officials

Hidekazu Tojo, chef-owner of Vancouver’s Tojo's Restaurant in Vancouver, has been appointed to serve as a goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine.
Photo via Flickr user Peter Lindberg

At this point, most people have figured out that the inside-out imitation crab, cucumber, and avocado maki known as the California roll is not a sushi recipe that originated in Japan.

But fewer may be aware of the fact that the California roll isn't even from California; it was actually conceived of and first executed in Canada.

And now, the creator of the roll synonymous with dumbing down Japanese cuisine for North American palates is being honoured by the Japanese government. According to the CBC, Hidekazu Tojo, chef-owner of Vancouver's Tojo's Restaurant in Vancouver, has been appointed to serve as a goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine.


READ: Japan Is Launching a Program to Fight Back Against Bad Sushi

The title of goodwill ambassador—bestowed upon Tojo by Japan's ministry of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries—is a prestigious one. Only 13 chefs have been awarded this title overseas, and the Consul General of Japan will formally present a certificate to Tojo at an upcoming ceremony.

Originally dubbed the "Tojo-maki," its maker soon changed the name to California roll, after it became a resounding success with diners from south of the Canadian border. Because of how difficult it was to find sushi-grade fish back in the 80s when Tojo's opened, and the unwillingness of many customers to eat seaweed, Tojo decided to invert the typical maki and load it with crab meat instead, or so the story goes.

From that moment on, the cheap and cheerful California roll was destined for ubiquity in strip malls and gas station fridges across North America. But it has also gotten a bad rap for being "inauthentic," which isn't fair, according to some, because the California roll never aimed to be authentic in the first place.

"It is interesting and exciting that local chefs invent dishes that [they] would have never created in Japan, like California rolls," Akiko Katayama, the host and producer of Japan Eats! on the food-focused Heritage Radio Network, recently told MUNCHIES. "Calling California Rolls 'Japanese' makes sense to me, because the recipe is based on the traditional techniques."

Recently, efforts have been made to control what can and can't be called proper sushi outside of Japan, with inspectors have issued the Japanese Cuisine Skills Certification Guidelines, a program that issue certificates of recognition to sushi chefs who travel to Japan to learn how to handle seafood, present dishes, and interact with customers in the Japanese way.

So, while North Americans who've watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix continue to obsess with the ever-elusive notion of "authenticity," we'll raise our sake bomb glasses to the guy who invented this gateway maki, which introduced millions of North Americans to the kingdom of sushi.