Food & Drink

'Almost seafood' products a hit with Japanese palates

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo

One innovative Japanese company has found a way to deliver its customers a taste of the sea, but with imitations it touts to be “almost like the genuine article.”

Fish paste products, known as surimi, have a long history in Asia and have even seen success in the Western market, but Kobe-based Kanetetsu Delica Foods Inc. has taken the process to new heights, perfecting their products to approach authenticity.

The company recently announced its scheduled release of an “almost fried oyster” product — the latest addition to the “almost seafood” series. The fishy reproductions are proving a big success in meeting the demands of avid seafood lovers around the country who don’t mind turning a blind eye, so long as the taste is right.

Kamaboko, or cured surimi products, are typically made from pureed white fish, combined with food additives depending on the manufacturer, which is steamed until firm. Kanetetsu Delica Foods uses kamaboko and a fried surimi for its products. Many consumers are attracted to the cheaper fish paste, which has a nearly identical texture and taste to the more pricey genuine seafood products. It also appeals to people who are averse to the hassles of cooking real meals at home.

Sold at ¥270 per package including tax, the series has already amassed total sales of 17 million units across Japan since being launched three years ago.

What’s more, Kanetetsu Delica Foods claims it has gotten the processing down to a science.

“A wide range of generations, including the younger generation who are usually not so familiar with fish paste products, have tasted the series due to the impact of its name,” Naoko Nachi, public relations officer at Kanetetsu Delica Foods, said.

“When they actually eat it and experience the taste and texture resembling the real thing, they share those feelings of surprise on social media sites and on the internet and the word gets around,” Nachi said.

According to the company, “almost fried shrimp,” which hit stores in September 2016, have sold especially well in Nagoya, where fried shrimp is a popular dish.

The company, which was founded in 1926, was looking for a new product using its fish paste amid a shrinking market. Production of fish paste products fell to some 470,000 tons in 2015, compared to around 890,000 tons in 1985.

Data released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries also has shown the average spending for fish paste products per household to be declining.

Nachi said it took about two years and nearly 100 prototypes to merchandize “almost crabs,” the first of the series that went on sale in March 2014.

“We wanted to make something that consumers would feel satisfied with, and something that even real crabs would feel envious about,” Nachi said.

The “almost fried oyster” product, whose ingredients include oyster extract but no actual oysters, will go on sale Sept. 1. A special tartar sauce comes with it, which helps to enhance the distinct flavor and bitterness of oysters when toasted, the company said.

The products are an especially easy sell for Japan’s popular bento.

“Just as with the other products, the ‘almost fried oysters’ taste good even when they have gotten cold, so it’s ideal for bento,” Nachi said.

In making the “almost scallops” product, an in-depth chemical analysis of the amino acids in real scallops was conducted, while the company also says it has reproduced the same fiber-like texture unique to scallops and crabs.

“I hope the series will be an opportunity for the younger generation in their 20s and 30s to get interested in fish paste products,” Nachi said.

Surimi, in the form of crab sticks, is also used for the California rolls popularized in the United States. Fish balls and fish cakes made from fish paste are also commonly sold in Asian supermarkets abroad.

Meanwhile, Kanetetsu Delica Foods has its sights set on an expanding market of “almost seafood” products for a variety of palates.

“Every time we launch a new product, expectations from consumers have risen, so the bar for a new product is higher. But we would like to come up with tastier, more interesting ‘almost’ products that will amaze consumers,” Nachi said.