California dreamin'
Invented in Canada, the California roll has won over even the biggest sushi skeptics

California dreamin'

Photo via Flickr, by Christina, with permission

Ari LeVaux - 03/23/2023

My son Remy was supposed to bring cheese and crackers for the ski team potluck, so of course he wanted to bring California rolls. It was a lot more work but a good idea. Everyone loves California rolls. And I am well-trained in making them.

The California roll is actually from Canada. Japanese-born Chef Hidekazu Tojo first served it in the 1970s at Jinya, a restaurant in Vancouver. Tojo wanted a sushi roll that would appeal to a North American audience that was often skeptical of eating seaweed and raw fish. He concealed the seaweed by rolling it inside the rice, and he used fake crab and avocado to mimic the experience of eating raw tuna. Originally called the “Inside Out Roll,” the staff at Jinya noticed that guests from California were especially enthusiastic about it, so they changed the name.

I was Remy’s age when the California roll was new and still exotic, but today it’s normal. My local supermarket stocks them pre-made, as well as every ingredient, including the imitation crab, a.k.a “krab.” This pink and white processed food is made from pollock, a fish that’s abundant in cold, northern waters. The pollock fishery is so healthy that fake crab is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to eat ocean protein. Seaweed is light on the earth as well. It’s farmed in the ocean and needs neither soil, water nor fertilizer. Both deliver wild, umami-rich complexities.

I made my first California roll in a sushi class when I was 15. We met one night a week for eight weeks. My teacher was disciplined and precise, like a martial arts master, and drilled us in the techniques, such as fanning the rice while you stir it just so. The California roll was only a few years old at the time and was popular and revolutionary enough that we spent a class learning how to make this trendy roll. We used plastic wrap to keep the rice from sticking to the bamboo mats as we rolled them inside out.

The rice gets mixed with a surprising amount of sugar to balance the salt and vinegar that’s also there. Altogether, the sweet, salty and sour flavors in the rice alone account for three out of the five basic tastes.Bitterness is present in the California roll from the seaweed and wasabi. The fifth and final basic taste, umami, is in the seaweed, avocado, fake crab and soy sauce.

These universal flavors appeal to everyone, old and new, including those who don’t purport to love sushi. At the potluck at the base of the chairlift, Remy’s rolls were the toast of the party. Kids were running around in their ski boots with their fists full of sushi rolls, and the platter was quickly wiped clean.

To make the rice, you will need a pot with a lid, a large mixing bowl, and a wide, thin, wooden or plastic spoon. And you will need a some type of flat, lightweight object to fan the rice – like a Tupperware lid. 

Sushi Rice

Makes 8 rolls

Two cups sushi rice (short grain, Japanese)

½ cup rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons sugar

Rinse the rice in the pot by covering it with water and sloshing it around with your fingers.

When the water gets milky with starch, dump and replace it. Do this as many times as necessary until the water runs clear.

Drain the rice of all rinse water and place it in a pot with 1¾ cups of water. Let soak for 30 minutes.

Put it on the stovetop and turn the heat to high for five minutes. Then turn down to medium low for 10 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, stir the salt and sugar in the vinegar in a bowl with a whisk or fork.

Transfer the cooked rice to a large bowl, ideally a wooden bowl.Then, with one hand fanning the rice, use the flat spoon with your other hand to slice into the rice and fluff it. Always slide the spoon into the rice edge first, and be careful not to mush the rice. You will see the steam flying from the fan.

Keep fanning until there is no more visible steam. Pour the sweet and salty vinegar over the rice, and gently slice it in with the flat spoon until mixed.

Let it cool to room temperature. 

California Rolls

To roll you will need a bamboo sushi mat and a sharp knife.

If you want to roll inside out, you will also need plastic wrap.

2 cups prepared rice, as above, cooled to room temp

1 package of nori seaweed

1 12-oz. package fake crab, preferably in stick form

1 cucumber, peeled and cut into long, thin pieces

2 avocados, cut into long, thin pieces

Optional: mayo

Soy sauce and wasabi for serving

In a little bowl, combine ¼ cup each of rice vinegar and water. Use this to keep your hands wet so rice won’t stick to them, to wet the end of the sushi roll to seal it and to wet the knife to keep the rice from sticking to it when you cut the rolls.

Lay a sheet of nori on a rolling mat. Spread a third cup of cooked rice over two thirds of a sheet, leaving the final 3 inches blank.

If you want to make inside out California Rolls, flip the riced nori onto a piece of plastic wrap, atop the sushi mat.

Pull a stick of fake crab in half, the long way along the grain. Lay the two pieces end to end across the middle of the rice, flanked by cucumber, avocado and mayo.

Carefully curl the mat around the sushi so the rice goes all around the contents, squeezing the mat as you roll it a little bit at a time, keeping everything as tight as you can.

Wet the knife with vinegar water and slice each roll into 6-8 pieces. (If you rolled it inside out, peel off the plastic before slicing.) ?


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