Believe It or Not, Sushi Is Pretty Damn American

It turns out that in an act of hegemony not seen since Manifest Destiny, we Americans have taken over sushi and re-made it in our inimitable image.

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Jun 8 2015, 6:30pm

Say you're doing some serious backpacking and you stop for a quick chat in the youth hostel lobby with Dietrich, that disillusioned German national whose outfit looks as though it is made entirely from recycled Rubik's Cubes. Dietrich, of course, asks you the inevitable question: "What's the most American food you can think of?"

Just how will you respond?

Texas red chili served from the skull-cavity of a bald eagle? Maybe some sort of pan-fusion monstrosity, emblematic of the melting pot we are? How about going for broke with a Lady Gaga-style meat muumuu, complete with lard slippers and a wiener-watch?

What you really should be saying is sushi. Lots and lots of sushi.

To commemorate the inaugural release of our newest video series, The Sushi Chef, we decided to take a look into the past to explain just why it is that the iconic Japanese staple is about as American as can be.

It turns out that in an act of hegemony not seen since Manifest Destiny, we Americans have taken over sushi and re-made it in our inimitable image.

And what is that image? Over the past 50 years, we've made it into mall food—available everywhere, at any time. Everyone is in on the fun: even your favorite celebrity.

In Japan, sushi has historically been another thing entirely. Considered a delicacy or treat to be savored occasionally, sushi in its homeland is "a special meal for special occasions, and is, therefore, eaten relatively rarely."

Sushi in the US is a relatively new thing, with the first sushi bar dating back to Moto Saito's 1957 restaurant in New York. According to reports, Saito would dress in traditional Japanese garb and "instruct her customers on the correct way to eat raw fish—something completely foreign to most Americans." It didn't go over that well, and sushi didn't take off in the US for another quarter decade.

In the 1970s, Ichiro Manashita of the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant and Ken Seusa of Kim Jo in Los Angeles did something that changed everything: they invented the California roll. It is, of course, a New World mashup of avocados, cucumbers, crab meat (or some faux version), and whatever else floats the sushi chef's boat, all wrapped up in vinegared rice.

But it was in the 1980s and 1990s that sushi exploded in the US, with the number of sushi bars quintupling between 1988 and 1998. Sushi became available—nay beloved—at every mall, bar mitzvah, and moms' book-club night from Montauk to Malibu.

WATCH: LA's Deadhead Sushi Chef Yoya Takahashi Isn't Afraid of Serving Shark Hearts

In fact, some chefs are now worried that America is turning sushi into an unrecognizable foodstuff—at least, unrecognizable to anyone Japanese. Kaz Okichi of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, DC, told the Washington Post that he is concerned about the "state of genuine Japanese sushi, the kind that requires years of training, an almost obsessive attention to detail, and a passion for fresh, clean flavors."

Adding to this problem may be the ubiquity of the celebrity-owned sushi palace. Yes, Robert DeNiro, Ashton Kutcher, Ludacris, Justin Timberlake, Michael Ovitz, and Julian Lennon all own—or partly own—sushi restaurants.

More troubling perhaps is this: one recent study has looked at a new phenomenon, the "return home of transformed sushi to Japan, at times in barely recognizable forms." Called a "reverse import" or gyaku yunyu, Americanized sushi is now being served in Japan—the latest evidence, if you needed more, of culinary globalization.

But it turns out that we Americans have long been making our mark on sushi.

Years before the landmark opening of Saito's first sushi restaurant in the US—or the time the first California roll ever touched the glamorously sun-kissed lips of Los Angelians in the know—Americans had already played an integral role in reshaping sushi. The shocker? Like pretty much all of America's innovations and long-lasting influences, the change was brought about through global conflict.

Way back in 1945, when various international parties met and signed the Potsdam Declaration, effectively signaling the end of Japan's participation in World War II, I'm pretty damn sure nobody present expected their actions to change the face of sushi forever. But as it turned out, during the War, the majority of sushi restaurants in Tokyo had been forced to close due to staggering food shortages. Post-war, they were reeling from the effects and unable to reopen due to a lack of rice.

Apparently, one Tokyo sushi chef went to extraordinary lengths to convince the American forces to allow the reopening of the nation's sushi restaurants. An agreement was eventually reached: customers could bring in their own rice rations to sushi restaurants, providing the ingredient they so desperately needed. Soon, the "consignment" system was implemented nationwide and this American-imposed regulation led to the widespread adoption of Tokyo-style nigiri, or rice-based sushi, as the predominant sushi style nationwide.

So thanks to an American intervention, nigiri took over Tokyo, then Japan, and then—years later—America.

Our ownership of sushi goes way back—long before Ludacris or Timberlake ever learned the intricacies of a kombu-centric dashi or the mind-spiraling idiosyncrasies of a proper kaiseki meal.

Sushi is as American as, well, sushi.