Madame Saito, the "Queen of Sushi," has been serving sushi and teaching classes on how to make it for more than 30 years.
Lauren Schneiderman / staff photogrpaher
Madame Saito, the "Queen of Sushi," has been serving sushi and teaching classes on how to make it for more than 30 years.

Meet: Madame Saito, "Queen of Sushi." She's been serving sushi in the Philadelphia area — and teaching classes on how to make it — for more than 30 years.

Raw deal: Saito had to learn her trade after hours in Tokyo, when restaurants were closed, because it was against Japanese custom for women to become sushi chefs at the time.

Claim to fame: Saito claims she invented the Philadelphia roll, the popular sushi roll made with smoked salmon and cream cheese that bears the city’s name.

In Philadelphia, where food lore runs deep, there's one legend that's gone relatively untold.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Madame Saito, owner of Tokio HeadHouse restaurant in Society Hill, gave a sushi-making demonstration at Longwood Gardens. At the close of the event, she said, she proudly presented her newest creation to the crowd — a sushi roll made with Philadelphia Cream Cheese and smoked salmon.

"I raise it up in the public and say, 'This is the Jewish roll!'" Saito said, noting that she was inspired to create the roll after a breakfast of bagels, lox, and cream cheese with a Jewish friend. "And the crowd says, 'No, a Philadelphia roll! Philly roll! Philly roll!' So they came up with the name of the roll, not me."

A sushi presentation of kappa maki or cucumber roll (left and right) with a Philadelphia Roll in the center.
Lauren Schneiderman / staff photographer
A sushi presentation of kappa maki or cucumber roll (left and right) with a Philadelphia Roll in the center.

It's difficult to independently prove  or disprove Saito's fish story. While several websites name her as the originator of the roll, a different creation story is often given. One site claims to have traced the Philadelphia roll back to San Francisco in 1985, but provides no sourcing or further information.

What is almost certain is that Saito, 68 — whose given name is Ai but who goes by Madame Saito (a name she picked up while studying in Paris) — was the first female sushi chef in the Philadelphia area.

While she was growing up in Japan, Saito's father was a food importer-exporter who often took his family abroad, where Saito was introduced to many different cuisines. As a result, she dreamed of one day becoming a chef.

But being a chef — especially a sushi chef — in Japan was unheard of for women at the time, she said.

"It's a custom that the woman cannot service in the sushi bar," Saito said. "But starting from my generation, there was a little fighting" against that custom.

For three years, Saito trained with sushi chefs in Tokyo after hours when their restaurants were closed, so nobody would see her.

In 1981, she moved her family to the Philadelphia area because she wanted her three young sons to attend the University of Pennsylvania one day (spoiler alert: They all did and all became doctors.)

Madame Saito demonstrates how to make kappa maki, or a cucumber roll, during a sushi-making class at her restaurant, Tokio Headhouse in Society Hill.
Lauren Schneiderman / staff photographer
Madame Saito demonstrates how to make kappa maki, or a cucumber roll, during a sushi-making class at her restaurant, Tokio Headhouse in Society Hill.

Saito opened her first restaurant in Upper Darby in the early 1980s, when sushi was still a relatively obscure cuisine in the United States.

Customers were so baffled by sushi and "so scared" of the idea of eating raw fish that Saito started teaching classes on the dish and how to make it.

At first, she said, other Japanese restaurateurs were shocked that she would teach sushi-making to her customers. They were afraid that if people learned to make sushi at home, they would not go out to eat at Japanese restaurants, Saito said.

But she thought otherwise.

"The more people know about sushi, you have more customers," she told them.

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at farrs@phillynews.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

Through five restaurants and three decades, Saito has taught novices and masters alike. At Temple University's Center City location, where she taught noncredit courses for 21 years, Saito said, she earned the nickname the "Queen of Sushi."

A sushi boat made by Madame Saito in her restaurant Tokio Headhouse in Society Hill.
Lauren Schneiderman / staff photographer
A sushi boat made by Madame Saito in her restaurant Tokio Headhouse in Society Hill.

Saito gives lessons for corporate and private events, and for 14 years she's hosted an annual sushi-making contest for amateurs as part of the annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival.

And every Monday through Wednesday Tokio HeadHouse is closed so she can give sushi-making classes that include the lore and language surrounding the dish.

Saito loves each class she gives, but there's one that's particularly close to her heart these days.

"Now, my grandkids ask for sushi classes," she said. "They love it. So that's my happiness."

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