The True Origin Of Spicy Tuna Nigiri

CORRECTION 3/16/23: A previous version of this article stated there were restaurants named Maneki in both Seattle and L.A. that claim to have invented the spicy tuna roll. Maneki Seattle is the only restaurant with such a claim.

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.

It started in Seattle

L.A. restaurant Kawafuku is credited with bringing the food to the U.S. just 60 years ago; The restaurant opened in 1966, with Michelin Guide saying 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 '60s, says Isassi, Los Angeles was also home to the creation of the inside-out roll, and conveyor belt sushi followed.

Sometime during the 1980s, Japanese chef Jean Nakayama of Maneki restaurant in Seattle allegedly invented spicy tuna nigiri in an attempt to use up tuna scraps (via Thrillist). 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.

Fast forward to today, and the U.S. is now home to around 16,000 sushi restaurants nationwide. Fans can even pick up a container of pre-packaged California rolls from their local Duane Reade corner drugstore (per Thrillist).