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Crab sticks: imitating the genuine article since 1974

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Special To The Japan Times

The California roll is responsible for popularizing the consumption of sushi in North America.

Originally developed by a Japanese chef in Canada, it contains cucumber, avocado and crab stick wrapped in an inside-out sushi roll, meaning the seaweed is on the inside.

It has since become one of the most popular sushi styles in North America, and last year the Japanese government honored its creator, Hidekazu Tojo, for his role in promoting it.

Key to the California roll is the replacement of raw fish, which made many North Americans a little squeamish, with a product known as crab stick. Invented in Japan in 1974, this highly processed food actually contains no crab meat whatsoever.

The primary ingredient in crab stick is surimi, a Japanese word literally meaning “ground fish.” The flesh of abundant white fish such as Alaska pollock is blended together with various texturizing agents and flavor additives to form a paste.

Surimi has been used in Japan for over 800 years in the form of kamaboko, a kind of seafood log that can be produced in various shapes and colors, which is sliced and most commonly added to soups.

Osaki Suisan Co. in Kusatsu, a seaside town near the city of Hiroshima, had been manufacturing kamaboko products since 1928, and it was Katsuichi Osaki, the son of the company’s founder, who first developed the crab stick, known in Japanese as kanikama.

Osaki thought that by adding red coloring to his kamaboko and cutting it into strips, the result would look like real crab legs.

“We can provide consumers a kamaboko that tastes substantially the same as expensive crab meat at a low price,” were his thoughts, according to the firm’s website.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the actual fish meat in a crab stick makes up less than 50 percent of the 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 crab-like flavor.

Also included in the synthetic mix are artificial sweeteners, to prevent degradation of the product when frozen.

Starch and egg whites are important for the texture of crab sticks and stabilize the gel paste. Wheat starch is also used, meaning they are not gluten free.

Vegetable oil lends the glossy appearance, and both artificial and natural flavorings are added. Water extracts of crab, oyster, scallop, lobster and fish make up the natural component, while the artificial portion comprises an assortment of compounds: esters, ketones and amino acids. To round off the flavor profile, seasonings such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), vegetable proteins and mirin (rice wine for cooking) are added.

The brilliant red color itself comes from carmine — a bright red pigment produced from scale insects to form a food dye, and mixed with paprika.

Nutritionally, crab sticks are quite low in fat but high in sodium and contain far less protein than a real piece of fish or crab. Their popularity stems purely from their low cost and ability to closely imitate a luxury item such as crab. Due to food labeling laws in some countries, the crab stick goes by alternative names such as “seafood stick,” “imitation crab stick,” “seafood extender” or simply “surimi.”

Although crab sticks were invented in Japan and are responsible for the survival of the kamaboko industry, the U.S. now dominates the market, producing over 187,000 tons of the product last year, and even exports it back to Japan.

As long as the California rolls keep rolling, the crab stick will continue to work its culinary illusion.