The True Origin Of Spicy Tuna Nigiri

Most foodies attribute sushi to the Japanese culinary world — and the earliest form of the dish indeed got its start in Japan. According to Chef Yoko Isassi, sushi, as most fans know it today, wasn't invented until the advent of refrigeration in 1913 (via FirstWeFeast). Prior, the earliest forms of sushi (aka "nare-sushi," common in the 3 to 5 century B.C.E.) consisted of fermented, pickled fish left in a barrel for an entire year. In nare-sushi, rice was purely utilitarian — it was after fermentation, it was scraped off and discarded before eating. Only the raw fish part counted as sushi, and, as Isassi says, "It smelled really bad."

Sound appetizing? Lots of American diners didn't think so, either. That's why, when sushi first hit the U.S. during the 1970s, the raw fish dish was slow to gain traction. But, this hesitation gave way to new creations. According to Japanese restaurant Shogun, the Philly Roll (with salmon and cream cheese) was invented by Japanese chef Madame Saito in Pennsylvania in 1983 to appeal to Japanese ex-pats and unaccustomed Western palettes. Or, when L.A. restaurant Osho opened in 1970, says Mental Floss, its signature dish became the California roll. (Although the California roll's initial creation is also accredited to other chefs, take the details with a grain of salt. Or, rather, a grain of rice.) Still, believe it or not, one popular type of sushi was created in the U.S. — and raw fish was the star of the show.

L.A. is for (sushi) lovers

Even though sushi first hit America just 60 years ago, the U.S. is home to around 16,000 sushi restaurants nationwide. Fans don't have to travel to Tokyo for fresh maguro. They can even pick up a container of pre-packaged California rolls from their local Duane Reade corner drugstore (per Thrillist). However, when sushi rolls with raw fish finally did take off in the states, it might have Los Angeles, not Japan, to thank. Introducing: spicy tuna nigiri — an L.A. original.

Sometime during the 1980s, Japanese chef Jean Nakayama of Maneki restaurant in Los Angeles allegedly invented spicy tuna nigiri to in an attempt to use up tuna scraps (via Slurrp). When Nakayama paired the scraps with chili sauce and wrapped them in nori and rice, it was a hit with guests. Per Foodicles, the mixture also included mayonnaise, which lessened the roll's potent raw-fish aroma. However, the true rights to the roll's origin are under debate. Maneki in Seattle (which opened in 1904) stakes a claim on spicy tuna nigiri, per Thrillist, stating that it was the roll's original birthplace.

When L.A. restaurant Kawafuku opened in 1966, Michelin Guide says it was "the first 'real' sushi restaurant the country had ever seen." Soon, Hollywood celebrities, from Audrey Hepburn to Rock Hudson, were public sushi fans. During the 1960s, says Isassi, Los Angeles was also home to the creation of the inside-out roll, and conveyor belt sushi followed shortly thereafter in the 80s.