So much for the avocado and the outer layer of rice—what of the imitation crab meat that’s at the heart of most California rolls? Its origins may come as a surprise, especially to those who believe America corners the market on “faux foods.” In the mid 1970s, a Japanese company called Sugiyo began working with Berelson, a San Francisco–based seafood distributor, to market imitation crab meat called Sea Legs to the American public. The preparation process, still in use today, involves boning, mashing, and cooking white-fleshed fish (usually pollock) to create a paste called surimi. This is then reshaped to look like crab, lobster, shrimp, or other types of seafood (flavoring and dyes are added as well). Although relatively new to the United States, surimi techniques have existed for many centuries throughout Asia, and historians believe the process began as a way to preserve leftover fish. As prices and demand for real crab increased here in America, many chefs started using Sea Legs and other “krab” products, as they are often called, in California rolls. Restaurants were able to charge less for rolls made this way, since not only is imitation crab cheaper, but it requires less kitchen labor than the real deal, which must be hand-shelled. Krab products’ affordability and the fact that they contain only cooked seafood helped the California roll to surge in popularity among sushi-shy Americans.
Today, California rolls have gone global: You can find them in London, Dubai, Dublin, and beyond; in Rio de Janeiro, mango is typically swapped in for avocado. They’ve even circled back to Tokyo, where a new genre called “creative sushi” has emerged. There, proudly nontraditional restaurants like Rainbow Roll Sushi and Genji Sushi New York serve generously sized American-style rolls—with names like Caterpillar, Dragon, Phoenix, and California—to locals and tourists alike.
And just as we’ve seen with American menu standards such as burgers and pizza, chefs all over the world are revamping the California roll based on creative whims and regional preferences. At Cafe Ish, a Japanese-Australian spot outside Sydney, chef Josh Nicholls’ California roll contains crumbed crocodile, avocado, pickled rosella flowers, and mayonnaise made with lemon myrtle, a common bush herb. Jean Kerr, in her Mystic Seafood cookbook, tops California Roll Oysters with avocado, lemon juice, salmon roe, and wasabi. And Peter Abarcar, Jr., executive chef at Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on Hawaii’s Big Island, makes a broiled California Roll Pizza with nori, rice, blue crab, local avocado, roasted sweet corn, soy barbecue sauce, and tobiko (flying fish roe). Abarcar explains his riff on the classic version saying, “As a chef, the California roll just gets so played out, so the pizza was a fun way to mix up the presentation but keep the familiar flavor combination, which people love and, let’s face it, does work really well.”
Not quite 50 years old, the California roll is younger than Madonna but seems to have re-created its image almost as many times. And though it may not be traditional, there is no doubt that it has been highly influential in directing the course of American sushi: “Almost all the rolls that we eat today are variations of the California roll,” says Corson.
Brooklyn-based Lexi Dwyer is a former editor at Epicurious and Brides magazine. Her writing has appeared on BonAppetit.com, iVillage, and NYMag.com. Though today she’s more likely to order uni topped with quail egg or an ume-shiso roll, she still remembers her first-ever sushi dinner—California roll included—at Go Sushi in New York’s East Village circa 1999.