Sushi is Not Traditional Japanese-American Food

In L.A., when people go out for Japanese food, they think of sushi, and sometimes go to Little Tokyo to eat it.

The "hard core" sushi fanatics always want the traditional sushi, which is rice with fish on it. They look down on the "rock and roll" sushi, which is stuff like the rainbow roll or the spider roll.

While this attitude is okay, it's probably not quite accurate to use "tradition" and "sushi" together. Contemporary sushi is not really old enough to be "traditional", at least not yet. Not many generations have been eating it.

Little Tokyo has been the Los Angeles Japanese community's commercial center since around 1900, several years after the first Japanese business opened up in 1886 (a Japanese restaurant). The first wave of immigrants started coming over in the 1880s, and grew for some time until immigration was outlawed in 1924. Immigration was re-legalized in 1965, but migration from Japan never really took off again. There weren't many "push" factors - the economy there was being rebuilt, so there were jobs.

When my mother came over in the late 1960s, she said that there was only one restaurant that served sushi in Little Tokyo, and they sold only futomaki and inarizushi. These are two traditional sushis, but, ones that aren't that popular at contemporary restaurants. Among Japanese, they're still popular, and Japanese Americans (at least older ones) eat them, at least during New Years.

What was more common at restaurants were sukiyaki and tempura. Indeed, if you look at old copies of LA newspapers, or the Rafu Shimpo, you come across ads for restaurants that serve sukiyaki and tempura.

So, for some 70 years, sushi resembling contemporary sushi wasn't sold at restaurants in the community.

This isn't that odd, though. My mother said she never ate what we think of as sushi -- that is, nigirizushi, or the little square of rice with fish on top -- until she was nearly 30 years old. She moved from a small city to Tokyo, and that's where she ate it. Until then, it was futomaki. This was in the 1960s.

Sushi is a relatively modern phenomenon.

There are several histories of sushi online, and the basic story is simple. The first sushi was preserved fish, invented in China. It eventually became popular in Japan, where the rice was eaten along with the fish. The rice had soured because it, and the fish, were salted and fermented.

Later, sushi was innovated by making it with fresh rice, flavored by vinegar. The rice was combined with fish, which, now could also be prepared with vinegar, or eaten fresh.

This makes sense, because, according to some internet histories of sushi, that style of sushi is called "Edo" which is the historic name for Tokyo. These histories also note that the sushi bar didn't become a phenomenon until after WW2. That quickly led to the development of sushi restaurants, and eventually the development of sushi as high cuisine.

Sushi was, until WW2, primarily a street food. It was also sold on train platforms.

Today, there are companies that sell nostalgia sushi on trains, recalling the era.

So, even in Japan, there's a desire for "traditional sushi" but, their idea of tradition is a small wooden box filled with sushi rice, topped with fish, and sold on a train.

[2015 note - Sushi is not traditional Japanese-American food. The spread of popular foods is not necessarily tied to a specific community's foodways, but happens for other reasons. There may be an identification of a group of people, and a cuisine, but the cuisine may not be a product of this group of people.]