What is Imitation Crab?

Posted on 08 Feb 2014 20:25

Defining Imitation Crab, a.k.a Crab Stick

Imitation crab, also known as crab stick, is a crab look-alike that comes in the form of orange-colored sticks with a curled and stubby appearance, something like crab legs. Lower in cholesterol and fat than real crab, and much easier to prepare, this product is similar to other imitation products such as imitation lobster tails, shrimp, or scallops. You might find them on salad bars and they are even showing up on restaurant menus, as in seafood salads.

The process for making this crab substitute is derived from Japanese surimi, a fish paste that has been used in Japan for over 800 years, and may be found in sushi, especially a California roll, which contains imitation crab and avocado.1,2

What is imitation crab? Find out what kind of fish imitation crab is made from and how it is manufactured.

How do They Make Imitation Crab?

It is sometimes reported that surimi and modern imitation crab as found in grocery stores are the same thing. This is not precisely true. Surimi and surimi-based seafoods have long been important parts of Japanese food culture, but today's imitation shellfish analogues are based on some new technology.

The biggest technological advance is the ability to freeze the fish paste without the proteins in the fish losing their required functional properties, such as their gel-forming capabilities. Before this, surimi could not be frozen and the production of seafood products from it was limited to how much fresh fish could be brought in and the amount of surimi that could be produced daily. The mass production of today, which led to imitation crab and other shellfish analogues being available in supermarkets all over the world, is a fairly recent development. As well, advancements in fishing technology led to an increased catch of Alaskan pollock, the principle fish used for surimi. Today's imitation crab uses technology to transform traditional surimi into this rubbery, slightly sweet product with a crab-like flavor.3

Surimi was originally a method for preserving fresh fish, by washing, salting, and grinding it into a paste, and cooking it by steaming or boiling. Today, a similar process is used, which is usually done right after the fish is caught. The paste is formed into huge blocks and then frozen to be sent to surimi factories. The factory thaws the blocks and blends the paste with starches (usually corn starch); binders like egg whites; sugars, preservatives, seasoning and flavors like crab juice; and additives like monosodium glutamate, vegetable oils, and others. This produces a firm product with a gelatinous texture, called kamoboko. The kamoboko can be extruded into wide, thin sheets. The sheets are cooked, cooled, and cut by a machine into thin strands, which are rolled into ropes and soaked in a red dye. The long, colored ropes are cut into shorter lengths, or into chunks, and packaged for sale.

crab sticks, imitation crab, kanikami

Imitation crab, crab sticks, or "kanikami"

crab sticks, imitation crab, kanikami

Imitation crab, crab sticks, or "kanikami"

The fish used for crab stick is usually a minced whitefish, most typically Alaskan pollock. New Zealand hoki is sometimes used as well. The bones, skin, and most of the fat - not to mention the flavor - is removed. Although there are grave concerns over salmon being caught accidentally in the pollock industry, which are discarded, one thing we can say is that surimi is a probably a much more sustainable product than actual crab, the stock of which is suffering. The Alaskan pollock industry is reportedly working to minimize the unintentional catching of species like salmon, or of juvenile fish, known as bycatch that are wastefully discarded. Other fisheries may not be so well-managed.

Most sushi products sold on grocery store shelves claiming to be crab will usually contain imitation crab. Subway's Seafood Sensation Sandwich has hunks of of flesh that look a bit like crab, but are actually imitation crab. Products sold in US supermarkets must be labeled as imitation according to FDA regulations. There is not much to stop restaurants and delis, however, from claiming imitation crab and other seafood analogues to be the real deal. 1,2

1. Loomis, Susan Herrmann. The Great American Seafood Cookbook. New York: Workman Pub., 1988.
2. Trenor, Casson. Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2008.
3. Sen, D. P. Advances in Fish Processing Technology. New Delhi: Allied, 2005.
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