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

A Brief History of Sushi in the United States

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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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9 Chilly Facts About Frozen Food Pioneer Clarence Birdseye
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Whenever you grab a frozen dinner for a quick, prep-free meal, you're in some debt to Clarence "Bob" Birdseye (1886–1956). The inventor was the pioneer of the flash-freeze method, which turned the frozen food industry into a billion-dollar enterprise. Check out some facts on Birdseye's life that reveal his genius as a food innovator and why we came close to enjoying frozen alligator.

1. HE WAS A FUR TRADER.

Like many geniuses, Birdseye didn't have his life entirely mapped out. Hoping to become a biologist, he enrolled at Amherst College in 1910 but couldn't complete his studies because tuition was too expensive. Instead, he became a field naturalist for the U.S. Biological Survey. In 1912, he joined a six-week medical mission in Labrador, Canada. There, in his spare time, he worked in fur trading. This experience proved be a crucial turning point in Birdseye's life.

2. HE WAS INSPIRED BY THE INUIT.

While on the trip, Birdseye observed Inuit performing their own version of flash-freezing. After catching fish, they would use a careful balance of ice and environmental conditions to instantly freeze their food without destroying it. (The air was so cold—sometimes as low as -45°F—that caught fish would essentially freeze in mid-air.) When the fish thawed, Birdseye was delighted to find that it still tasted good. The difference was that foods frozen slowly formed cell- and flavor-destroying ice crystals, while quick-frozen (or "flash-frozen") foods did not. Thinking he could adapt the same principles to other foods like vegetables, Birdseye returned to the States in 1917 with the ambition of developing a quick-freeze machine. By 1923 he was experimenting with various methods in his kitchen in the suburbs of New York City. One involved rabbit meat, candy boxes, and dry ice.

3. HE DEVELOPED TWO METHODS FOR QUICK-FREEZING.

Eager to replicate the Inuit way for mass production, Birdseye came up with two novel methods for quick-freezing foods. Using calcium chloride, Birdseye could chill metal belts to -45°F and press the food between them, speeding up the freezing process. He then improved this process by using hollow metal plates filled with an ammonia-based refrigerant. When squeezed between these plates, meat and vegetables could be frozen in 30 to 90 minutes. 

4. PEOPLE WERE WARY OF FROZEN FISH.

While his ingenuity would ultimately prove successful, at first people were highly suspicious of frozen seafood. Consumers had no basis for comparison and didn't know what to expect when it came to taste; railroads and store owners, meanwhile, were worried they might be held liable if thawed food made people sick. But there was enough potential that Birdseye sold his company, General Seafood Corporation, to Postum in 1929. (Postum later changed its name to General Foods.)

5. HE SPEARHEADED THE ENTIRE FROZEN FOOD INDUSTRY.

Before Birdseye's patented methods, no one really stored or ate frozen foods (then called “frosted foods”) owing to their terrible taste—it was so noxious that New York State even banned using it to feed prisoners. In order to get the general public to accept frozen foods as a viable market product, Birdseye—who was still working for General Foods after the sale—needed to develop packaging, freezer cases, and transportation methods. It was an arduous process involving test markets and large-scale salesmanship, but by 1944, refrigerated boxcars were carrying Birdseye (labeled Birds Eye) products to stores across the country, and customers were bringing them home to store in their newly bought home freezers.

6. HE TRIED FREEZING EVERYTHING. EVEN ALLIGATORS.

Birdseye was virtually obsessed with finding the potential limits to the food-freezing process. Toiling at his factory in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Birdseye experimented with almost anything he could get his hands on. In addition to fish, meats, and vegetables, he also tried freezing porpoise, whale, shark, and an alligator.

7. HE REINVENTED THE PEA.

While he was busy amassing his frozen food empire, Birdseye actually had a material effect on one food's appearance. By blanching green peas before freezing them, Birdseye noticed that the vegetable would turn a vibrant green. The colorful pea soon became a staple of the frozen vegetable market.

8. HE ALSO CHANGED THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY.

Birdseye was constantly on the lookout for ways to perfect his flash-freezing production process. Acknowledging that frozen food packages would develop condensation, he looked toward the French invention, Cellophane, to wrap his fish. But the packaging would disintegrate once it got wet. Birdseye convinced Cellophane's manufacturer, DuPont, to create a moisture-proof version. He was its only customer until cigar and cigarette companies realized that the material would keep their products dry.

9. HE WAS BUSY UNTIL THE END.

Birdseye died in 1956 at the age of 69, but age hadn't slowed his ambition. At the time of his death, he was hoping to perfect a process by which sugar cane could be turned into pulp for paper. Today, his Birds Eye products continue to populate virtually every frozen food section of every supermarket in the country.

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Does More Fat Really Make Ice Cream Taste Better?
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Cholesterol. Sugar. Carbs. Fat. As diet-trend demons come and go, grocery store shelves fill with products catering to every type of restriction. But as any lifelong snacker knows, most of these low-sugar/carb/fat options can't hold a candle to the real thing when it comes to taste. Or can they? Scientists writing in the Journal of Dairy Science say fat may be less important to ice cream's deliciousness than we thought.

Food researchers at Penn State brought 292 ice cream fans into their Sensory Evaluation Center and served each person several small, identical, unlabeled bowls of vanilla ice cream made with a range of fat levels: 6 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, or 14 percent. The participants were asked to taste and compare the samples.

The researchers had two questions: Could participants tell the difference between varying fat levels? And if so, did they care?

The answer to the first question is, "It depends." Taste-testers' tongues could spot the fat gap of 4 percent between dishes of 6 percent and 10 percent. But when that range moved to 8 percent and 12 percent, they no longer noticed. 

More interestingly, reducing fat levels didn't have much effect on their interest in eating that ice cream again. They were equally interested in having a bowl of ice cream that had 6 percent fat and one that had 14 percent.

It's a bit like plain and pink lemonade, co-author John Hayes said in a statement. "They can tell the difference when they taste the different lemonades, but still like them both. Differences in perception and differences in liking are not the same thing."

Co-author John Coupland notes that removing fat from ice cream doesn't necessarily make it better for you. For this study, the researchers used the common industry trick of replacing fat with a cheap, bulk-forming starch called maltodextrin.

"We don't want to give the impression that we were trying to create a healthier type of ice cream," Coupland said.

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