When you think of the quintessential Toronto food, what comes to mind? Is it the peameal bacon sandwich — in particular, the one from Carousel Bakery in the St. Lawrence Market which honours our ‘hogtown’ history? Or how about the Jamaican patty? ‘Street meat’? Roti?
Consider the sushi pizza. It’s a Japanese-inspired dish typically consisting of a fried rice patty topped with salmon sashimi, spicy mayonnaise, tobiko (flying fish roe), a sprinkling of green onion, and occasionally, avocado slices. The dish is ubiquitous at all-you-can-eat and mid-priced sushi spots in the city, but seldom seen outside of the GTA, so it could be a uniquely Toronto creation to call our own. It isn’t authentically Japanese, but it’s an entry point to sushi for beginners. Sushi purists, however, despise this deep-fried, mayo-covered creation while lovers of the dish enjoy the layers of textures and taste.
The origins of the sushi pizza are not clear, but I decided in order for it to be in contention to be a Toronto dish, I had to find out exactly where, and who, first conceived of it.
There isn’t much reliable information online, but one of the first hits is a questionable Wikipedia entry for sushi pizza that notes a female chef in Montreal claims to have invented the dish in 1992, linking to a 2008 thread on food website Chowhound, that quoted a post from a 1999 thread about sushi pizza in a still-active Usenet forum called alt.food.sushi. The poster there recalled that he first had it at a spot called Atami on Edouard Montpetit Blvd. in Montreal where he was told by the female Japanese chef that it was her invention.
His description says:
“It was raw fish with mayonnaise and tobiko on a ‘cooked’, thin, rice crust like the one on MOS Burger’s (a Japanese burger chain) rice burgers…They were quite small, about six inches in diameter.”
I messaged him to ask about the meal he had nearly 30 years ago. Surprisingly, he responded after a few hours but wrote that he doesn’t remember anything beyond what he originally wrote, and that he ate there when he was studying at the nearby university.
Atami is still open, but after repeated calls to the restaurant, I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me about sushi pizza.
A restaurant review of Atami by the late Helen Rochester in the Montreal Gazette noted that it opened in January 1995, three years after the online poster claimed to have eaten there, with a female sushi chef, and the space was previously an Italian restaurant. The article doesn’t mention sushi pizza, but the restaurant’s current online menu does show pictures of two sushi pizzas. The Deluxe Pizza consists of four triangular fried rice cakes topped with a mixture of crab, smoked salmon, cream cheese, tempura bits, green onion and fake crab meat.
While the female sushi clue was common in both narratives, the online poster must have been mistaken about the date since the restaurant wasn’t open when he claimed to have eaten there.
So, acting on a hunch, I turned back to Toronto.
Former Star restaurant critic Cynthia Wine first wrote about the sushi pizza in May 1993, predating when Atami opened in Montreal in 1995.
“The high cost of sushi has inspired local Japanese restaurants to new tricks,” she writes. “Nami Japanese Seafood Restaurant now sells a comical-looking sushi pizza, using a fried rice cake as the crust, then topped with tuna, onions and fish roe. Bounded by a Japanese-style mayonnaise, it looks convincing and tastes good.” At that time, the sushi pizza cost $8.
She wrote about the sushi pizza at Nami again in 1995, this time calling it “goofy” and that it “would be a great joke if it weren’t eight bucks a laugh.”
Wine still remembers it. “The first time I had it was at Nami,” the now-retired Wine said. “I was surprised that it spread because I found it so opposite to what sushi is and is meant to be: The cleanness, the freshness…When I saw that, it was a deep-fried base with stuff piled on top. Why would you wreck the taste of fresh fish? It was the ’90s, people were crazy for novelty.”
Still, she saw the appeal of the dish, with the different textures and tastes. “I guess if I was writing that review now, I’d say it tastes good but it has no business being good.”
Nami opened in 1985 and still operates at its original location on Adelaide St. E. Perusing their website, I suddenly felt I’d found the answer to my quest:
“…why not try a modern classic, the ‘Sushi Pizza,’ invented by Nami many years ago and now copied by Japanese restaurants around the globe.”
Unfortunately, Nami general manager Reo Watanabe didn’t work there when the sushi pizza first appeared on the menu more than two decades ago. All Watanabe knew was that the chef who created the sushi pizza had moved to Western Canada decades ago. He didn’t have a name or a contact, but wished me luck.
I had more than luck, I had the Star’s librarian, Astrid Lange, who took my vague tip and found the name of the man who may have invented the object of my obsession, thanks to a 1996 Star recipe column identifying Nami’s chef.
Kaoru Ohsada was working in the backyard when I called his home in Canmore, Alta. His wife, Noriko, answered the phone. I asked if her husband worked at Nami all those years ago and if she had heard of the sushi pizza.
“Oh, yes, he invented it,” she said, casually.
At 58, Ohsada is on the verge of retirement, with six more weeks to go at his current job as a sushi chef at the Samurai Sushi Bar and Restaurant at the Fairmont Banff Springs resort. He and his wife have three daughters who love to skate. His oldest daughter, Meg, is a competitive figure skater who captured two silver medals at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2013.
Originally from Kobe, Japan, Ohsada trained in French cooking, working at a French restaurant for five years before moving to Canada in 1985. First, he worked at a teppanyaki restaurant in Niagara Falls before taking a job at Nami in 1987, working various positions in the kitchen, sushi bar, dining room, and offices. In Canada, he got his first taste of the California Roll, the North-Americanized sushi roll consisting of fake crab meat, cucumber, tobiko and avocado. Unlike a lot of Japanese sushi chefs who are sticklers for tradition, Ohsada says he was impressed by it.
“My background is as a French chef, not a sushi chef, in Japan,” he says. “That’s probably why I can accept it.”
It also explains why, while he was working at Nami, he didn’t hesitate when it came to experimenting with a new sushi creation.
“In the early ’90s, I had smoked salmon on top of a thin-crust hash-brown at a restaurant along Bloor, I can’t remember the name of it,” said Ohsada. “I thought this was very unique and that I could do something like that at the restaurant. I took some sushi rice, salmon from the sushi bar, chopped onion, fish eggs and made something that looked like a pizza.”
It became a hit with customers. Management also liked it, he says, as it was a way to reduce food waste by using leftover rice from the sushi bar to make frozen rice patties to fry up the next day.
The first iteration of the pizza was a deep-fried rice patty (it didn’t have the golden-brown batter like the ones now) topped with a drizzle of spicy mayonnaise, raw salmon with a drizzle of soy sauce mixed with wasabi, diced raw onion and a mixture of red and black tobiko. “We stopped using black tobiko because it was more expensive,” says Ohsada, explaining that it is pricier because the fish eggs are coloured with squid ink. “But customers would still come in and ask for the ‘original’ sushi pizza because it had the more expensive ingredient.”
He worked at Nami until 1996 when he took a job at the Fairmont where he has been ever since. There’s no sushi pizza on the menu, though on occasion, Ohsada does get asked by customers if he’s ever had one before.
“Most of the time, I pretend I don’t know about it, or else I’ll have to make it. I’ll make it for fun for the staff,” he said. His wife also told me he makes it at home and that he made it for her before it appeared on the menu at Nami.
Ohsada is surprised that the sushi pizza has taken off and has become a menu staple at sushi restaurants in the GTA, but he says he’s proud and happy about it.
Next time we debate what a Toronto dish is, consider Ohsada’s sushi pizza and the legacy that it has left. His is a story of an immigrant who combined his heritage and training with the different cuisines of his city to create a unique dish now enjoyed across the GTA, be it downtown or the suburbs, east or west of Yonge Street.
What’s more Toronto than that?
Do you have any tips regarding the origin of the sushi pizza? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Karon Liu is the Star’s food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu