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Did You Know?: Teriyaki was, and wasn't, invented in Seattle

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Erik Junberger / Flickr

I have often heard it said that, "Teriyaki was invented in Seattle." In turn, I've spread this "fact" myself. But this is one of those things that has a lot of nuance around it. Teriyaki wasn't technically invented in Seattle — but it sort of was, at least when you consider our modern interpretation of this culinary delight.

Teriyaki evolved over many years, and Seattle played a major role in its modern development and rise onto menus far and wide. Modern teriyaki is the result of immigration, various cultures mingling, exchanging ingredients, and business savvy, all adding up to an obsession.

I'll point you to a great Seattle Weekly story on this which takes a much deeper dive. In short, teriyaki (teri: the shine on the food; and yaki: grilling) goes back a few hundred years in Japan, and was associated with a style of grilling fish with a sauce primarily made from soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and sake. As Japanese immigrants came to the United States, the sweet wine was switched out for sugar, likely around Hawaii. The fish was eventually exchanged for chicken and beef, which were more popular across the United States.

Teriyaki dishes have appeared on American menus since at least the 1940s. But Seattle's Toshihiro Kasahara is credited with spurring a teriyaki trend in the 1970s that kicked this evolution into high gear. He started Toshi's Teriyaki in Lower Queen Anne. His teriyaki was cooked on skewers and came with rice and salad. Chicken sold for $1.85 and chicken/beef combos went for $2.10. It was a hit. Others started similar operations, and Toshi opened more locations. But what he did next is likely why teriyaki became so associated with Seattle.

Toshi repeatedly opened new restaurants, and sold his existing locations. The new owners had local roots, as well as from India, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere — each, perhaps, throwing in their personal, culinary backgrounds into the mix. Korean immigrants are particularly credited with taking things to a new level. By the 1990s, hundreds of teriyaki shops had spread throughout Western Washington, and headlines were boasting of the region's obsession with the dish.

With all these different forces coming together over teriyaki, other entrepreneurs began taking it to other cities. This modern evolution of teriyaki is what you're most likely familiar with (a bit removed from the original three-ingredient grilled fish dish) as you pass through airports, pick up to-go orders in the U-District, or get a teriyaki burger.

This Did You Know? segment was originally published as part of KUOW's Today So Far newsletter for Jan. 25, 2023.

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