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In Japan, imitation crab can be better than the real thing

Photo: Jiangang Wang/Getty Images
Photo: Jiangang Wang/Getty Images

In Acquired Tastes, The A.V. Club explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

Crab is delicious. It has a delicate, smooth texture that offers one of nature’s most intoxicating sweetnesses. For this premium experience, consumers are charged up the wazoo. Thus began the search for a cheaper crab, a search that landed upon an interesting alternative: a crab product that contains not a shred of real crab. And with the passage of time and the evolution of palates, the product has somehow come to be revered nearly as much as real crab in its native Japan.

Behold the crabstick, a.k.a. krab or imitation crab. It resembles fresh lump crab meat and has a texture that convincingly approximates the meaty, flaky qualities of the real thing. What it actually is, however, is a form of kamaboko, a Japanese processed seafood product that incorporates crab-flavored surimi, Japanese for “ground fish.” Often made from pollock, an abundant species of whitefish, this pulverized meat is mashed together with wheat starch, egg whites, meat glue, humectants, and seasonings to achieve its intended taste and texture. Giving the crabstick its reddish-orange hue is a food dye born from scale insects and mixed with paprika.

According to The Japan Times, fish meat makes up less than 50 percent of the finished product: “The ingredients that make up the remaining half are those which give the product its glutinous texture, crab-leg-like shape, red hue, and crablike flavor.”

“It’s like the American version of a frankfurter, in that the process of making is quite similar,” says Keiko Kubo of JETRO, a Japanese trade organization. Justin Behlke, culinary director of Kitsune, a Chicago restaurant melding Japanese cooking with American Midwestern ingredients, likens imitation crab to another popular processed food: “The texture of it, that fish cake texture—it’s weirdly addicting. I love it. It’s kind of like Spam.”

He’s not wrong. A staple in the cupboards of thrifty U.S. diners, Spam is a hybrid meat product in much the same manner as a crabstick. But crabsticks are no substitute product in Japan, in the way it’s used in supermarket sushi in America. On the streets of Japan, you might find imitation crab in hulking, meaty slabs served on sticks. And like both Spam and hot dogs, it tastes better when slathered in condiments. At Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, for example, crabstick skewers are sheathed in a sloppy, spicy glaze of Kewpie mayo, mustard, and wasabi.

The thing is, the product itself is an outlier in Japan’s street food scene. There, stalls and yatai—mobile food markets—line tight, crowded thoroughfares, with smoke drifting off grills and across raw fish, pickled vegetables, and charred rice balls. At any market, the food is clean, made on the spot from the freshest ingredients, and untouched by unnatural ingredients or chemicals. “It’s so focused on product,” Behlke said. “The street food, even in its lowest form, is the highest quality. Even McDonald’s uses really good product.”

My wife and I learned as much on our honeymoon. We ate our way through endless markets. Scallop, sea urchin, and dried mullet roe at the Tsukiji Fish Market. At Nishiki Market in Kyoto, there was baby octopus, sesame dumplings, and pickled everything. Osaka gave us street food staples like takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (a decadent, savory pancake dish). In the tiny mountain town of Takayama, we paired hida beef buns with locally made sake. Still, no matter what city we were in, I kept coming back, as so many locals also do, to these processed, red-dyed sticks, the likes of which eclipse the shredded flakes you find on cocktail platters in the U.S.

And that’s because, processed or not, the freshness of Japan’s culinary culture also extends to crabsticks. The process of making kamaboko traces back to the 1500s, and surimi earlier than that. Just because the product aims to provide a cheaper alternative to crab doesn’t make it any less viable in Japan.

That’s why it doesn’t feel quite right for me to compare it to canned or vacuum-sealed processed meats. Few would classify those as particularly healthy, but that’s how Ken Kasahara, the director of research and promotion for JETRO’s agriculture and food division, describes crabstick. “It’s a healthy food,” he says with laugh. “It’s low in fat and high in protein.” Like any processed food, however, it’s laced with sodium. But, Kasahara said, the snack’s relative healthiness isn’t the only reason the product is popular, especially when it comes to American consumers.

Considering crabstick relies not on crab but on abundant species of whitefish, the product functions as a sustainable source of seafood. So while it may not be as satisfying as actual crab, it can still provide some of the product’s simple pleasures while also working as, as Kasahara describes it, a “protector of the resource.”

Photo: Jiangang Wang/Getty Images

It can also work as a gateway into more ambitious seafood, as the product is cleansed of the briny, sour smell (often described as “fishy”) that so often repels cautious diners. Furthermore, it’s safe for those with shellfish allergies, allowing them to at least get some idea of what makes crab and lobster such a delectable treat.

What I found surprising was that, in some Japanese markets, surimi sticks actually do contain real crab. Therein, the circle of irony closes its loop: Crabsticks were invented as a cheaper form of crab, and when the Japanese developed an affinity for its pseudo-crab taste, real crab has been made to taste like imitation crab. “They’re more expensive because they’re sushi-grade,” Kubo tells me. When I ask her where you’re more likely to find a crabstick with actual crab she’s unsure. “It depends on the owner and the location,” she says. Then she laughs. “But many people prefer to eat imitation because of the flavoring.”

That I get. As much as I loved (almost) every bite I had in Japan, I’m still a kid who was raised on Big Macs and frozen burritos. Now and then, it’s okay to find comfort in the taste of artificiality.