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California roll creator Hidekazu Tojo’s continuing quest to broaden palates overseas

December 16, 2016


A namigai (geoduck pronounced gooey-duck) is not a pretty creature. Native to North America’s west coast, it looks like a beige slug that has outgrown a clam shell. Hidekazu Tojo is about to convince an audience to eat it.

The Kagoshima-born chef is leading a cooking demonstration at the BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival in Comox, British Columbia. A few days ahead of this appearance, he was awarded the title of goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine by the Japanese government.

In British Columbia, the 66-year-old is well known as the owner of Tojo’s Restaurant, a high-end sushi bar in downtown Vancouver. If anyone can get the foodies in Comox to eat geoduck sushi, Tojo is the man for the job.

“Any food people have never seen before, they think it’s scary,” the 66-year-old tells the crowd, adding that the staff at his restaurant make a habit of educating the clientele on what they’re eating.

Tojo slices up the geoduck, adds some spicy mayonnaise and cucumber, and serves it gunkan-style (in the shape of a battleship) to his audience. The geoduck is slightly crispy, and the chef says the mayo negates the need for additions like soy sauce. Judging from the mumbling in the crowd, and the empty serving plate, it looks like Tojo has won a few converts.

Introducing people to new foods is perhaps the defining theme in Tojo’s professional life, and it all began with the California roll. In 1971, the then-22-year-old completed a residency at a sushi bar in Osaka and moved to British Columbia. Finding that the locals were adverse to the idea of sushi, particularly the seaweed element — “In the 1970s, people said, ‘No, don’t use seaweed, it’s so yucky!” — he decided to flip his rolls inside-out. By hiding the seaweed on the inside and packing the sushi with ingredients that Canadians were more familiar with — cucumber, cooked salmon and crab, and avocado — the naysayers began coming around.

Though it was known as the Tojo roll, the idea spread to other restaurants quickly under other names. The “California” moniker is said to have come from the roll’s inclusion of California avocados, but some foodies argue that the idea was born in Los Angeles.

“My approach to everything was the same as the North American way,” Tojo says. “Then I added a Japanese touch — knowledge, skill, presentation.”

Tojo says that as his customers grew accustomed to his sushi, he would “step up” the Japanese elements ever so slightly by introducing new ingredients and so on. While his methods were a hit in North America, though, Tojo remembers how his fellow sushi chefs back home were not as impressed.

“Many Japanese people told me I was breaking tradition, saying I was no good,” he says. “They said, ‘This is wrong, you should put the seaweed on the outside!’ But North Americans, they understood.”

The freedom to experiment more than 40 years ago may be one reason why Tojo opted to remain in British Columbia, but he also cites the area’s bounty of ingredients. Over the years he continued to innovate with his tuna tataki (seared slices of albacore tuna with a citrus-base soy sauce) and BC rolls (barbecued salmon and cucumber in roll sushi).

“I made that tataki because we didn’t have bonito tuna (in Vancouver), and the Japanese said, ‘Albacore should only be eaten as canned tuna, not as sashimi,’ but I did it,” Tojo says. “And today, every restaurant is doing it!”

The menu at Tojo’s currently boasts a Celebration 2010 Roll (an “inside-out roll containing crab, pineapple and asparagus with tuna, wild Pacific salmon, red snapper, spinach and egg on top”) and a Great Canadian Roll (an “inside-out Atlantic lobster roll with asparagus and smoked Pacific salmon on top”), to name but a few.

“I live here in the Pacific Northwest and I want to use local ingredients along with my own Japanese touch,” he says. “I think that’s how I’ve been successful.”

Success has come with celebrity endorsements and Tojo has cooked for everyone from Justin Bieber and Tom Cruise to Japanese, British and Thai royalty. He has received numerous awards and even appeared on American domestic guru Martha Stewart’s TV show to teach her about sushi.

What’s next for Tojo? If he could bring any new food from Japan over, he says he’d choose fugu.

“I would like to import fugu (to Canada). It’s a delicacy in Japan in the wintertime and I’d like to introduce it to Canadian people,” he says. “In wintertime, fugu sashimi is big. The Kanto-style (sushi) assortment includes red tuna, octopus, whitefish and squid, but in Osaka, they’ll always serve fugu. You should try it.”