Sushi Pizza: Surprisingly Canadian, Surprisingly Great

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The most common reaction I observe in others, when first introduced to the idea of sushi pizza, is disgust. I don't blame them. It certainly was mine when I moved to Toronto from Quebec almost a decade ago, and found it hanging out on just about every Japanese restaurant menu. "Sushi pizza" reads like a mistake. The concept is pure human hubris: why would anyone feel the imperative to Frankenstein two already perfect foods? To attempt this is to set oneself up for failure, and simultaneously invoke the wrath of some higher power. Nevertheless, as the perpetual victim of my own desire for novelty, I tried it. It was, I am sorry to say, delicious. And since then, I've become its proud advocate.

Tell your gastrointestinal system not to worry: the dish isn't quite what its moniker suggests. There's no co-mingling of hot, oozy dairy and raw seafood, no tomato sauce where it doesn't belong. It's form-meets-flavor fusion in that it takes the fundamental ingredients of sushi and rearranges them into a shape familiar to Western diners.

At its simplest, sushi pizza is a deep-fried puck of compact sushi rice topped with raw fish, slathered in various condiments, and cut into slices for optimal snackability. Every restaurant has its own take; some restaurants even offer different toppings to choose from. My neighborhood sushi restaurant serves it with thin cuts of salmon, shredded fake crab, tobiko, sliced avocado, and a heavy-handed drizzle of a sweet soy glaze. The version at Nami, where it originated almost 30 years ago, features salmon sashimi topped with a generous mound of tobiko and green onions, with a layer of spicy mayonnaise to hold the fish to the rice patty.

Granted, deep fried rice and mayonnaise feel at odds with the principles of freshness and delicacy central to sushi. But if we were to judge the sushi pizza on its own merit, it's hard to resist. The rice patty is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside; combined, they light up the pleasure centers in the brain. The soft slices of raw fish provide textural juxtaposition to the crunchy patty. The sauces help cut through the richness of it all. It's the ideal appetizer—and marketed as such—because after eating a single slice, you will suddenly find yourself insatiable.

While the concept might offend Japanese cuisine purists, and puzzle those who've seen the chaos fusion food has caused in the industry over the last 20 years, the sushi pizza deserves serious consideration. For one thing, its origin story is not that of an intimidating foreign dish bastardized by a white chef for personal gain, nor a sensational item launched at a hipster food market to lure in crowds for a summer. It started, as many Canadian food traditions do, with an immigrant adapting the food they knew to the tastes and customs of the cultures around them and making it their own.

The sushi pizza, according to the Toronto Star, was invented by a Japanese-born, French-trained chef named Kaoru Ohsada in the early 1990s. At the time, Ohsada was working at Nami, an upscale sushi restaurant in Toronto's Financial District. The dish was such a hit with patrons that it spread across the city and beyond; as the restaurant's website proudly proclaims, it was "invented by Nami many years ago and now copied by Japanese restaurants around the globe." Although I can't validate its international allure, I've seen versions of the sushi pizza pop up as far afield as Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Sushi pizza is, to me, pure fun. It's a quirky, unexpected concept that's survived nearly three decades despite its perplexing name. It defies expectations of what Japanese cuisine should be, and doesn't take itself too seriously. And if it doubles as a gateway to sushi for unacquainted palates—which I suspect it does—all the better. Isn't this how every international cuisine gets slowly integrated into mainstream foodways?

I am not making the case, as some have for poutine and beaver tails, that sushi pizza is an iconic Canadian dish. There is no one thing that wholly represents our cuisine—Canadian food identity is an amalgam of the many identities melding within its borders, from the Indigenous peoples who inhabited this land before it was stolen from them, to the refugees who've found in it a place of respite.

Nevertheless, in this small and sacrilegious appetizer is a microcosm of the modern Canadian food scene: a place where cultures intersect, learn to coexist, and enrich one another. In my corner of this expansive country, where Tibetan restaurants share a wall with roti shops, and where you can hear a dozen languages spoken on any given day, eclectic experimentation and cultural cross-pollination are the norm. Here, the irreverent mashup we call sushi pizza feels right at home.