California rolls are one of the most popular sushi rolls in the U.S.. From the name alone, it isn’t a surprise that they are not from Japan. The origins are debated—several chefs in Los Angeles and a chef from Vancouver claim it. The avocado in the roll is a produce associated with California, thus the name. The chef in Vancouver claims the initials of the main ingredients, crab and avocado, stand for CA, the acronym for California.
Regardless of who came up with it, the roll dates back to the 1960s to 1970s. It became popular when Gourmet magazine featured it in 1980 as a gateway sushi for folks who have never had sushi. With no raw fish and rolled inside-out—the rice is on the outside of the roll—it’s often the first sushi that Americans try and eat most often.
Key Ingredients in California Rolls
Though it looks difficult to make, the California roll is easy to assemble. It is made with imitation crab or real crab with or without mayonnaise, avocado, and occasionally cucumber. Roe or sesame seeds are sometimes sprinkled on top. Here is a run-down of key ingredients that go into a California roll:
Imitation crab is sometimes called crab stick, seafood stick, or surimi, and often made with white Alaska pollock mixed with wheat or egg white, crab flavoring, and red food coloring to mimic crab meat. You can find it in stick form or in chunky flakes. Either works for this recipe, though a crab stick is easier and doesn’t have to be mixed with mayonnaise to hold together. Use real bulk crab meat if you’d like, though its significantly more expensive.
Kewpie mayonnaise is a brand of Japanese-style mayonnaise that’s slightly sweeter than American mayonnaise, like Hellman’s. Find it in Asian grocery stores, specialty stores, like Cost Plus World Market, online, or well-stocked grocery stores—check the condiments section next to regular mayonnaise or in the Asian ingredients aisle. You can use regular mayonnaise with a pinch of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar mixed in, or skip it all together.
Nori is a sheet of dried seaweed. It has two sides—a rough side and a shiny side. Typically, the shiny side faces out as it’s prettier and has a better texture. California rolls are rolled inside-out so it doesn’t matter which side is inside or out. Find nori at well-stocked grocery stores, Asian grocery store, or online. Just make sure to buy sheets—often 7 1/2 by 8 inches—for making sushi rolls and not the smaller snack packs.
Fish roe is often used to garnish the outside of California rolls. You can find it at Asian and Japanese grocery stores. I used American Golden Whitefish roe, which is lighter in color than the commonly used bright orange roe. It lends a nice bright crunchy pop of salty sea and is available at upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods. Pick a reasonably-priced roe that is small, as larger ones won’t stick to the roll. Don’t love roe? Use black and white sesame seeds to dress up the rolls and give them a bit of crunch.
Avoid using a metal spoon to scoop the roe. It can impart a metallic tinny flavor. Mother-of-pearl spoons are often used to serve roe and caviar, but a ceramic or plastic spoon works too!
Rice vinegar is a key ingredient for making sushi rice. In addition to using it in the rice, here it is used not as a flavoring but rather to prevent the avocado from browning. You can find unseasoned rice vinegar at Asian markets, well-stocked grocery stores, or online. It’s okay to use lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or white vinegar instead.
The Bamboo Rolling Mat
Sushi chefs use a bamboo sushi rolling mat, called makisu in Japanese, to assemble the rolls. It is made of sticks of bamboo tied together with cotton strings. The nori is placed on top of the mat shiny side down. Then the rice and fillings are layered on. The mat helps handle the nori, which is brittle and will easily tear.
With an inside-out roll like the California roll, place a piece of plastic wrap on the mat first to keep the rice from sticking to the mat. Rinse and air dry the mat before storing.
You can find sushi mats at Japanese grocery stores and variety stores like Daiso, Asian grocery stores, and online. You can use a piece of parchment paper with plastic wrap placed on top instead. It doesn’t have the same structure, but with a little practice, no one can tell the difference.
My Tips for Making California Rolls
Don’t overstuff the rolls. Use the least amount of rice you need to cover the nori. And don’t overdo it with the crab, avocado, and cucumber. It'll be easier to roll.
Water is your friend when it comes to spreading the rice on the nori. Set a small bowl of water next to you and dip your fingers into it before spreading the rice. This will keep the rice from sticking to your fingers.
Do some lifting first. For the initial roll, lift the nori with the rice over the filling. This first move is key. Otherwise, the filling will slide right off.
Squeeze it just right. Once you’ve formed the roll, gently squeeze it while still wrapped in the mat. This will help seal and tighten the roll. Don’t squeeze it too tightly—you’ll squeeze the filling out. If that happens, push them back in.
Slice the roll with a wet knife. To get evenly sized pieces, cut the roll in half first, then each half into thirds, forming six pieces total. Glide the knife through the roll without pressing down—you run the risk of squishing it—letting the sharp blade do the cutting. To get clean cuts, wet the blade with water and wipe it down between cuts.
More Japanese-Inspired Recipes
8 ounces imitation crab sticks, flakes, or lump crab meat
3 tablespoons Kewpie mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium avocado
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 English cucumber
4 sheets nori, each about 5 x 7 1/2 inches
3 cups prepared sushi rice
Fish roe, for garnish (optional)
Black and white sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
- Bamboo sushi rolling mat
- Plastic wrap
Make the crab filling:
Place the imitation crab, Kewpie mayonnaise, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix together, breaking apart the crab with two forks. If you are using crab sticks, cut them into 1-inch pieces first.
Prepare the avocado:
Cut the avocado in half lengthwise. Remove the seed and slice lengthwise into 12 (1/2-inch) strips. Place the avocado in a small bowl and sprinkle the rice vinegar over it to prevent it from browning.
Prepare the cucumber:
Peel the cucumber. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop the seeds out with a small spoon. Cut the halves into 3 x 1/2-inch sticks.
Assemble the roll:
Prepare a small bowl of water. You’ll need it to dip your fingers into.
Place the bamboo mat on a flat surface. Place a piece of plastic wrap that’s a little bigger than the mat over it. Place the nori on the plastic wrap with the long side facing you. Spread about 3/4 cup sushi rice on the nori. Use your fingers to spread the rice into an even layer to cover the nori. Dip your fingers in the water to prevent the rice from sticking to your fingers.
If you are using the fish roe or sesame seeds, evenly spread or sprinkle them over the rice.
Gently pick up the nori and peel it off the plastic wrap. Flip it over so that the rice is facing down with the long side facing you. Spread 1/2 cup crab mixture in a narrow strip lengthwise on top of the nori. Lay 3 strips of avocado and 3 strips of cucumber on top.
Roll the roll:
Lift the nori, using the bamboo mat underneath it from the side closest to you up and over the filling. Continue to roll it using the mat then, gently press and squeeze the roll to help tighten and seal it.
Slice and serve:
Remove the mat and carefully peel away the plastic wrap. Place the roll on a cutting board and cut it in half crosswise. Then cut each half into 3 equal pieces, making 6 pieces total.
Repeat this process to make 3 more rolls. Serve with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger on the side.
California rolls are best eaten just after you prepare them. They can stay at room temperature for about 90 minutes. Leftovers can be refrigerated covered with a damp paper towel and in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Keep in mind that the longer they are refrigerated, the drier and harder the rice will become and the limper and soggier the nori gets.
Did you love the recipe? Leave us stars below!
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 17g||21%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||12%|
|Total Carbohydrate 39g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||18%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 9mg||43%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|