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A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images
A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images

A Brief History of Sushi in the United States

A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images
A plate of sushi in the 1970s, via Getty Images

Although Japan’s cuisine is complex and diverse, for most Americans, Japanese food is synonymous with sushi. There are nearly 4000 sushi restaurants across the United States today, grossing over $2 billion annually. But 50 years ago, most Americans had never heard of sushi; if they ate Japanese food at all, it was more likely to be sukiyaki (beef and vegetables cooked hot-pot style in a soy-based broth) or tempura. If fact, many Americans would have thought the idea of consuming raw fish appalling. It took a smash-hit TV show and a boom in immigration from Japan to turn sushi into an everyday “American” food.

In the 1950s many Americans were somewhat resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because they had lived through World War II and still perceived Japan as “the enemy.” But by the 1960s, the tide had started to turn: Food journalist and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, writing for The New York Times dining section during that decade, was excited by international dining and kept tabs on the city’s numerous Japanese restaurants. He declared Japanese food a trend in New York after two establishments opened in 1963, noting that “New Yorkers seem to take to the raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and sukiyaki.” However, he admitted, “sushi may seem a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates" [PDF].

According to The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Corson, Los Angeles was the first American home of authentic Japanese sushi. In 1966, a Japanese businessman named Noritoshi Kanai brought a sushi chef and his wife from Japan, and opened a nigiri sushi bar with them inside a Japanese restaurant known as Kawafuku in LA's Little Tokyo. The restaurant was popular, but only with Japanese immigrants, not with American clientele. However, as more sushi spots opened in Little Tokyo, word got back to Japan that there was money to be made in America. Young chefs, tired of the rigorous and restrictive traditional culture of sushi making in Japan, struck out on their own in LA.

A sushi restaurant in LA's Little Tokyo. Image credit: Elliot Trinidad via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The first sushi bar outside of the Little Tokyo neighborhood popped up in 1970, next to the 20th Century Fox studio. Named Osho, it began attracting a fashionable, celebrity clientele—including Yul Brynner, a lunchtime regular. As Hollywood began to embrace sushi throughout the 1970s, the food also got a boost as Americans were encouraged to eat more fish for better health. According to Corson, “In 1977, the U.S. Senate issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States, that blamed fatty, high-cholesterol foods for the increasing incidence of disease. The report recommended greater consumption of fish and grains. Around the same time, health experts also began to promote the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish. Many Americans discovered sushi as a healthful alternative.”

And then came Shōgun, an epic television event that would change America’s cultural relationship with Japan. Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, Shōgun is a work of historical fiction depicting the story of a British sailor’s rise as a political player in 17th century Japan. The Shōgun miniseries, which aired over five evenings in mid-September 1980, was a smash hit—watched by more than 30 percent of American households and earning three Golden Globes and three Emmys. The show was also notable because it was filmed entirely in Japan and all the Japanese roles were actually played by Japanese actors. (Previously in American films and television, Asian roles were often played by American actors in yellowface—think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Shōgun depicted Japanese dress, culture, and food with a level of authenticity that was previously unparalleled on the American screen. A surprising amount of academic research has since been done of Shōgun and its cultural influence, and the series was required viewing in many high school history curriculums throughout the 1980s. Corson credits the show with sparking “a nationwide interest in all things Japanese, including sushi.”

The launch of the Shōgun series coincided with an economic boom in Japan that brought many Japanese businesses to the United States in the late ’70’s and early ’80s. This, in turn, encouraged a new wave of Japanese immigration. The combination of gastronomically homesick Japanese and Americans enraptured by Japanese culture created a wave of interest in Japanese food, particularly sushi.

Richard Chamberlain, Yoko Shimada, and Toshiro Mifune on the set of Shōgun. Image credit: Getty Images

In 1984, what is probably the oldest continually operating sushi restaurant in New York, Hasaki, opened. The eatery was founded on East 9th Street in the Little Tokyo section of the East Village by a Japanese immigrant named Bon Yagi, who wanted to avoid the unfocused, pan-Japanese restaurants that had been more common in America’s past. Hasaki was the result of the boom in Japanese immigration—it provided a comforting dose of home for expats. But it survived and thrived because of the growing American interest in Japanese cuisine.

Yagi capitalized on Hasaki’s success by opening over a dozen other restaurants within a few blocks, all focusing on Japanese specialties—including a soba noodle restaurant with soy-soaked dashi broths, a ramen joint, a casual curry place, and a small shop for takoyaki fried octopus balls, among others. His restaurants became the heart of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, which still attracts Japanese immigrants as well as curious Americans with roots in other cultures.

Outside of New York, it can be hard to find the varied Japanese specialties Yagi has brought to the East Village—but it’s very easy to find a sushi restaurant. Sushi has become as ubiquitous in America as Chinese take-out, and has experienced much of the same transformative evolution as Chinese-American food. It’s changed as a result of being made by Americans without Japanese heritage, and also while its creators focused on local, American ingredients.

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Corson credits the invention of the California roll with making sushi accessible to Americans. The roll evolved in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and used local avocados paired with crab meat to replace hard-to-find fresh, fatty tuna. But its real innovation came many years later, when a chef decided to make the roll “inside out”—with the seaweed hidden in the middle. (The first genius to make an inside-out roll is unknown.) The California roll used ingredients familiar to Americans and hid the seaweed, which was seen as foreign and challenging.

Another classic example, the spicy tuna roll, was invented in Los Angeles in the early 1980s by mixing tuna scraps with chili sauce and rolling the result with seaweed and rice. Today, the tuna roll is usually sauced with sriracha, which is produced in the nearby suburb of Irwindale, California. The result is a mix of Japanese and “American” flavors.

Genji Sushi New York in Tokyo. Image credit: s.yume via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the past half-century, it’s not just Americans who have become fascinated with Japanese culture; the feeling is often mutual. As a result, American-style sushi has begun to make its way back to Japan. According to an article in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “The sushi that is served in these new-wave American sushi restaurants (mostly roll sushi with ingredients other than raw fish) is both similar to, and distinctively different from most sushi available in Japan.” In one restaurant in Tokyo, Genji Sushi New York, the signage and menu are partly in English and they serve California rolls; Philadelphia rolls with salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber; and Rainbow rolls, a variation on a California roll that is wrapped in multicolored sashimi. All are American creations. The Journal explains the Japanese consumption of these hybrid-sushi rolls is both playful and ironic, and seen as something cool and hip.

Today, meeting friends for sushi is almost as American as going out for a beer and a pizza. It’s proof positive that when we leave our hearts—and plates—open to other cultures, good things often come of it.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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