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How the California Roll became the model maki sushi — 'so different from the Japanese original'

National Post logo National Post 2021-06-01 Joseph Brean
a close up of sushi: To see seaweed or not to see seaweed? That was the game-changer. © Provided by National Post To see seaweed or not to see seaweed? That was the game-changer.

In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which has gone entirely virtual this year, hosted at the University of Alberta from May 27 to June 4.


The California Roll has disputed origin stories.

One has it starting in Vancouver in the late 1970s, with the state’s abbreviation CA serendipitously standing for the roll’s main ingredients, crab and avocado.

Another places the invention in Los Angeles, where squeamish diners trying a newly stylish foreign cuisine preferred not to see the seaweed wrapping of the traditional Japanese preparation, so the makizushi (literally “rolled sushi”) was served inside out, showing rice, with avocado standing in for raw tuna in the fish’s off season.

However it began, it took off like pepperoni pizza and, according to the new research of Kiyoko Toratani of York University’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, the California Roll’s name became a template for the naming of rolls as North American sushi came into its own.

Her theory is that the California Roll was the primary example of a broader trend. In Japan, sushi rolls are named literally, for the ingredients. But the North American sushi menu has become wildly figurative and metaphorical, from the Spider Roll to the SkyDome Roll and even the Ex Boyfriend Roll.

To study this, Toratani classified the menu offerings of leading sushi restaurants in San Diego, Houston and Toronto, for a presentation to the Canadian Society for the Study of Names at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I was amazed by the uniqueness of their names and images because they were so different from the Japanese original,” she said Monday in an interview.

She explained this by reference to metonymy, the linguistic concept in which one word stands for another related word, as when people use “the crown” to refer to the monarchy. Her argument is that “California” is an example of metonymy for avocado, in which the place name stands in for the ingredient.

This type of “place for product” metonymy became the standard menu pitch, as the notion spread to include the Boston Roll with shrimp, or the New Orleans Roll with crawfish.

a hand holding a piece of food:  A spider roll, made with deep fried soft shell crab. © Getty Images A spider roll, made with deep fried soft shell crab.

This template also shows up in a double metonymy, such as the Amigo Roll, which evokes Mexico, which in turn evokes the main ingredient avocado; or the Cajun Roll, suggesting Louisiana, and therefore the main ingredient oysters.

This was the most common naming convention. Variations include an “effect for product” metonymy, such as the Energy Roll, reflecting the Japanese idea that eel restores energy.

Next common was a description of shape or colour, as in Caterpillar, Spider, Dragon or Rainbow roll, which look figuratively like their names. Some referred to the diner, such as the Salmon Lover’s Roll or the Shrimp Killer Roll.

One thing that stands out is how few of these names are Japanese.

Toratani has previously studied the process by which the word “sushi” was naturalized into North American English, first explained with a paraphrase as in “sushi, or rice sandwiches,” second as a compound element to describe a “sushi bar” or “sushi restaurant,” and finally with a shift in meaning, to refer more broadly to raw fish, rather than the literal Japanese dish with vinegared rice.

For this newest work that describes the California Roll as the prototypical maki name, Toratani surveyed the various menus and noted that almost 40 per cent of the names were words from outside the restaurant context.

a group of sushi:  Dragon rolls, presented in the shape of a writhing dragon. © Getty Images Dragon rolls, presented in the shape of a writhing dragon.

So, although some rolls were named with familiar menu words such as “crunchy,” “spicy,” or “grilled,” many evoked stereotypical Japanese notions in the North American imagination that have nothing to do with food, such as the Kamikaze Roll, Sumo Roll and Hot Geisha Roll.

Many were not even Japanese. The Lion King Roll is arguably somehow Kenyan, and the Star Wars Roll seems even more distant from its culinary roots. Nature’s wonders figured prominently, like Tornado and Magma rolls, as did sex, from Hot Night Roll and S&M Roll to the French Kiss Roll.

“These names remind us that North American sushi rolls were born in restaurants as many of them adopt naming strategies for the purpose of getting the diner’s attention,” Toratani said.

This contrasts starkly with Japanese naming conventions, which rely on the literal ingredient, and as Toratani explained, carry the implication of home cookery.

“We don’t have to sell the sushi roll, that’s why we just use the ingredient for the name,” she said.

The California Roll was a product of North American chefs having to pitch an unfamiliar concept, in which the literal description was less effective than the figurative. It caught on so well that it started to change the cuisine itself.

“I think this sushi roll has a life of its own that’s just evolving continuously,” Toratani said, noting that some menus now list an option in which a California Roll is deep fried, called a Crazy Boy Roll.

“For Japanese, frying sushi is just crazy,” she said.


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