City Informer: Was The California Roll Really Invented in Vancouver?

An investigation into the West Coast's most notable roll... and the general concept of "truth."

Why do I introduce myself at every party as the inventor of Gogurt, the portable, snackable yogurt tubes ideal for cool teens on the go and kids who hate spoons? Because there’s pretty much no way to prove when or how a ubiquitous menu item was created. (Also I crave attention, as you probably know if you’ve read this column before.)

Which is why it remains unclear if Vancouver chef Hidekazu Tojo—of the acclaimed and enduring Tojo’s—actually did create the California roll in 1974. Not that I’m calling Chef Tojo a liar at all, no no no, I would never disrespect the honour of a man with such a distinguished reputation and the city’s sharpest knife collection! Nothing of the sort! There are just a lot of other people out there who also think they invented the California roll. But as we know from all the times I’ve booked a karaoke room and thought, “I’ll just sit back and let other people sing tonight,” what we believe and what is true are two different things.

Chalk it up to parallel reasoning: great minds think alike. Did you know that another guy invented the steam engine, too, but he was up in the mountains and by the time he came down to the Big City to tell people, everyone was like, “Sorry dude, Greg has been steaming engines for, like, months now; where have you been, it’s actually kind of overdone and I’m more into collecting vintage covered wagons now?!” (I am not paraphrasing.)

Tojo shares the title of California (Roll) King with two duelling L.A. sushi chefs who both claim that the idea was theirs. On the one hand, Ichiro Mashita has Encyclopedia Britannica in his corner, but on the other hand, there’s Noritoshi  Kanai, whose name indicates that he was born to roll (nori means seaweed, of course) sooooo…

Tojo, though, is the only one who has gone so far as to try to copyright the roll. If that tenacity isn’t cold hard proof, I don’t know what is.

What all these chefs seem to have in common is that they wisely saw cooked seafood and hidden seaweed as an opportunity to convince picky-ass white people to try sushi. In Tojo’s case, it was on one fateful evening in ’74 (I am picturing “The Way We Were” blasting on the radio and Tojo with beautiful, Fawcett-esque feathered hair, and I encourage you to do the same) that he flipped over seaweed-pressed rice to wrap up Dungeness crab, avocado, egg crepe and spinach to offer maki-phobic customers a gateway bite. He called it the “Inside Out” roll, and it was a hit. Perhaps too much of a hit: copycat rolls started popping up over the next few years. The Japanese media saw this unorthodox item taking off on the West Coast of North America, and dubbed it with its famous ’Fornia moniker.

Even if Tojo didn’t invent the Cali roll, he’s got other smash hits to act as a foundation for his incredible legacy as the greatest sushi chef in the city—and probably even in Canada. The B.C. roll: ever heard of it? Yeah, that’s a Tojo joint. Ditto the rainbow roll and spider roll. So if he and I rolled (get it?!) into a party at the same time, and both of us claimed to be the inventor of Gogurt, the portable, snackable yogurt tubes ideal for cool teens on the go and kids who hate spoons? Well… I know who I would believe. 

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Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler