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Mar 20, 2007 09:17 AM

When did fake crab meat become so ubiquitous? And why isn't anyone else complaining?

A recent post on Hiro Sushi mentioned fake crab and got me thinking. I can't remember the last time I found anyone using real crab--except if you order a whole one. It used to be that exceptional sushi restaurants used only real crab. But, the last time I had a really good sushi made with real crab meat was over 15 years ago at a wonderful place near Kits Beach in Vancouver.

Wouldn't you expect a truly high-end sushi place to use real crab? And it is not just sushi restaurants that substitue this crap for the real stuff. When did the food industry just assume they could replace real crab with fishcake and no one would notice? And when did we as consumers stop expecting more?

Is there an entire generation who have think pink-tinged waxy fishcake is actually crab?

I just HATE fake crab and I am willing to pay more for the real stuff.
Am I alone in this?

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  1. I don't know when it became ubiquitous, but my understanding is that surimi has long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, quite separate from real shellfish. Anyone from Japan out there to confirm??

    In North America, fake crab and shrimp were first distributed widely for the kosher market. The product was called, proudly, "I Can't Believe It's Not Crab". Seems a shame it spread so widely beyond this understandable niche. (This also applies to fake bacon and edible oil "creme".)

    5 Replies
    1. re: embee

      Where do you get this BS? Imitation crab distributed by kosher markets??? There is nothing kosher about surimi......

      1. re: Pollo

        Embee's post is correct:

        "The Talmud also teaches us that for every non-Kosher food, there exists an equal and opposite Kosher version (Chullin 109b). Modern food technology has indeed given a new twist to this concept. While lobster, shrimp, and crab may not be Kosher, imitation versions of these non-Kosher staples can now be obtained with excellent Hashgacha. Surimi is an ancient Japanese process by which minced fish is converted into a protein base and used to produce a variety of foods. Today, Kosher surimi (produced under supervision, of course) is used to produce imitation crab legs, lobster, and shrimp ? [sic] and is deemed a reasonable facsimile of the real thing!"


        "Surimi is minced white fish that has been processed into a host of different products, from imitation crab legs to shrimp. Using very specialized technology, the delicate texture and flavor of these exotic types of otherwise non-Kosher seafood can be recreated, and indeed Kosher crab, shrimp, and lobster are now available. It is important to note, however, that surimi was not developed for the Kosher market but rather to produce unique Japanese products and inexpensive replacements for these types of seafood. As such, conventional surimi shellfish products often contain significant amounts of real shellfish meat for flavor and therefore offer no Kosher advantage. Even the minced fish from which the surimi is produced requires a reliable Hashgacha to ensure that it was made from a Kosher fish, and that the equipment used to produce Kosher surimi was be properly Kashered. Surimi may therefore only be eaten with a reliable Hashgacha."

        However, you are also correct that the "traditional" Japanese process of making surimi is not kosher. But a kosher process of making surimi has been developed and the resulting foods (also being called surimi) are now available in some stores and through on-line markets.

        1. re: Pollo

          Cool your jets Pollo. There is kosher surimi and I remember when "I can't believe it's not crab" and "I can't believe it's not shrimp" were introduced with a major splash. I remember how exciting it was to get "crab" in gefilte fish and to have "shrimp" cocktail before a fancy restaurant meal. The "shrimp" cocktail, in retrospect, was awful, but the "crab" gefilte fish was pretty good. Viewed in a Japanese context, this makes perfect sense - fishcake!

          I'm OK with serving processed fish as itself, including in some kinds of sushi. I don't expect a "California roll" to contain any real crab. I'm OK with its acknowledged use - I've eaten some tasty restaurant crab cakes and crab salads that contain fake crab (usually combined with real when it's really good). I have a problem when I order, and pay for, "crab" or "scampi" and am served surimi.

          I also recall the introduction of Coffee Rich and Rich Whip, which were premium products that cost more than the real thing. Like fake crab and fake shrimp, these products met a market driven demand. (Coffee Rich killed a local kosher deli waiter's disgusting little practice of dispensing milk from a personal supply to favoured customers in return for a big tip.) I'm disappointed that, in North America, these products came to frequently masquerade as the real thing. I want real crab, real shrimp, and real cream, or an overt acknowledgment that it isn't. The original reason people served fake crab in my life was because real crab was forbidden. The only reason to label surimi as "crab sushi" is to rip people off.

          1. re: embee

            Pardon a question from someone who knows zero about 'Kosher' and all that goes with the word but how does a ground up white fish like pollock end up tasting like say crab if there's no actual crab in it to make it taste like crab? Just asking.

            1. re: Puffin3

              It doesn't. It's intended to replace crab, not replicate it. It existed in Japan long before it made it to the West. It's cheap protein and a way to preserve what was then considered to be a valueless fish.

      2. Because most restaurants think we won't notice (and for the most part this is unfortunately true).

        I hate to catastrophize, but the oceans are dying, so pretty soon we will be hard pressed to find anything fresh that isn't mass produced in pens and tanks anyway. I always get this sinking feeling when I'm eating seafood of any sort. Then there's the whole debate of wild versus farmed etc...don't want to get into that though.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

          I love it. I have gout, and if this is real crab meat, I would have a problem.

        2. Sorry, D&D, but VERY few people would be willing to pay for the real thing.Just check the price on quality "jumbo lump" crab meat and see if it's still worth it to you.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Kagemusha

            I should qualify that it was a post regarding a sushi establishment billed as "very good" that got my back up on this. I can't believe that a lump of crab meat could be any more expensive that some of the very best tuna or other specialty ingredients you would find in very good sushi. As authentic sushi is all about top quality ingredients I thought the fake stuff was misplaced on that menu. It totally fits at the AYCE places or supermarket, but not at the hands of a so-called sushi master. Thank goodness they haven't found a substitute for soft-shelled crab--yet.

            And as SWS mentioned, I did think about the environmental concerns. Pricing food to reflect scarcity and sustainability should definitely become more prominent in all areas of consumption. Creating cheap substitutes may be the new way of the world (or may not depending on what other species are destroyed in the process). I guess we will all have to suck it up sooner or later. :)

            1. re: Kagemusha

              I always ask if it is real crab and if it is not, I order something else. If I am told it is real and the dish comes out with the krab crap I refuse it.

              1. re: Kagemusha

                To some people, it IS worth the price. A normal pot of gumbo, out of my wife's kitchen runs us about US$300 for 5 gals. but this is becaues she uses real ingredients, and most have to be imported to PHX (DEN before) for her dishes. There is no substitute for the real article.

                Is this typical? I have no clue. However, it's like wine from Charles Shaw/Bronco, that might have the name "Napa" stuck onto it, because of "grandfathering in" of some of their names. It does not make it a Napa wine, and I don't care if it's 10% of the price, if it ain't good, it ain't good. One may dine on that, which they wish to dine on. If I happen to chose the real-deal, and am alone, so be it.


              2. I think the problem is that people in the US call the stuff "fake crab meat" instead of "surimi", which to us is a processed fish product not meant to imitate anything else. Surimi in sushi is perfectly OK.

                31 Replies
                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Oh no, I ask if is fake crab or surimi. I won't touch the surimi garbage

                    1. re: Candy

                      CG412 and Candy, do you two also dislike kamaboko, our much more traditional fish cake?

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Actually, in Japan, what people are calling here "surimi" they call "kani kamaboko" or just "kani kama". I think "surimi" is made from iwashi (sardine), isn't it?

                        1. re: Silverjay

                          surimi is most commonly made from pollock.

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            No, you're confused. The Japanese term for imitation crab, usually made from pollock, is not "surimi". It is "kani kamaboko". Real "surimi" is a finely minced seafood ball, most likely made from sardines or other cheap fish, and also sometimes shrimp, etc. For some reason, in the U.S., the term "surimi" has come to mean the imitation crab stuff. Most Americans have probably never tried real "surimi".

                            1. re: Silverjay

                              Just from looking around a bit, I get the impression that surimi has a generic meaning - which is any processed fish paste food item, including kamaboku and chikuwa, and may have a more specific meaning - although I don't find any references to a specific seafood ball. (The general vs. specific dual meaning is very Japanese, eg - Sake for both whiskey and nihonshu.) Here's a Japanese site that shows the process of making surimi. The paragraph on top is text, but the rest is graphic. The end results show all kinds of seafood paste products, including kamaboko and kani kama sticks.


                              1. re: applehome

                                My imagination pretty much already connected the dots about how the stuff is made, but thanks for the link anyway...Yes, "suri" (擂り) as a verb means ground, grinded, or rubbed. So you can have anything with a "surimi" process (meat, vegetables, fish,etc.). For fishballs, look up "tsumire" (つみれ). We sometimes used "surimi" around our house for tsumire, chikuwa, hanpen type things.

                        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          Maybe because I grew up on assorted "fish" and "shrimp" ball/cylinder, half moon products that I like surimi, too. I love all that in a warm soup w/ udon. And, we'd have it in hot pots, too.

                      2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Sam, it doesn't matter what you call it, and I don't know how it's made in Japan, but in US it's cheap fish doctored up with high fructose corn suryp and artificial colors to "look" like crab... or so they think. I love crab, but I'm deathly allergic to this imitation cr&p! and I always look, ask, etc. Surimi in sushi may be "okay" to some people, but it isn't okay in anything to me. 8>(

                        1. re: ChefJune

                          Well, we're talking about two entirely different products then. Surimi is made of fish and contains no HFCS. It, like kamaboko, is a traditional food in Japan.

                          You're allergic to fish?

                          That you, and a lot of others could care less what we call things (someone else said that Americans call "sashimi" "sushi" so that is that, end of story) I find culturally insensitive. The "doesn't matter what you call it" attitude is also surprising: on a thread about "best steaks" posters were extremely clear and detailed about what cuts were best, what there were named, and exactly what the cut constituted. Some of the less carnivourous CHers might be tempted to say, "Its all just slabs of red meat, don't care what you call it, I wouldn't eat it".

                          Finally, my point about what it is called: would Americans have such a reaction if the stuff was called "fish cake" instead of fake crab? Even in English, we call the stuff "fish cake".

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            If it helps at all - I only read this far because of your very informing posts

                            1. re: coastie

                              Thank you. That is the nicest thing I've heard all day!

                          2. re: ChefJune

                            This is the wrong attitude!

                            The entire process of using up lesser parts of an animal to present perfectly good protein is considered an art in much of the world. From chacuterie to salumi to surimi (is there a connection?), it is only our recent arrogance and haughty indifference to the needs of the world that have brought us to the point that only bluefin toro and kobe rib-eye are worth eating.

                            There is going to be a global reckoning as we fish the oceans to extinction. Insisting on only eating real crab is going to lead to the end of all crabs.

                            I do believe that it's about good food - and I don't like to substitute fake for real in a recipe that needs the real. But if I'm going to preserve the blues for hammering and picking and soft-shell, then there's room for pollock and other cheap fishes, that otherwise would be tasteless and virtually inedible, to be processed into something that can be decent eats. There's nothing like sitting down for a great oden and getting a delicious variety of surimi - like a Japanese sausage stew, but of fish. Saying never to sausage is not only not good for the earth, but insuring that you'll miss out on some good food. I understand the issue about allergies - but for most, it's the other way around. People that are allergic to shellfish can eat surimi that has no shellfish content.

                            Let's face it - our kids will be eating artificial fish and maybe some real fishcakes simply because there won't be any fish left in the oceans!

                            1. re: applehome

                              I think no matter what there will still be fish, although maybe a huge drop in wild species. Right now there are farmed fish available to satisfy the growing demands, not just salmon, but including hamachi, shima-aji, kanpachi (there are farms in Hawaii), unagi (eel from China), tuna to some extent (I've heard even farmed blue fin where the fat is literally almost white from the fish doing nothing but eat),

                              1. re: K K

                                Farmed fish are actually part of the problem. They are genetically different than their wild counterparts and have introduced diseases to wild populations. The only country that has so far avoided this problem is Iceland, where they breed fish in landlocked tanks.

                                1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                  A FEW farmed fish are genetically distinct. Some of the farmed salmon are GM to put on more weight faster. Most farmed salmon and many other farmed fish are genetically the same as their wild brethern. US catfish growers produce in landlocked tanks, as do fish farms all over the globe.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    This must be fairly recent practice (landlocked tanks). Actually, if you know, I would be interested in what specific countries have adopted this practice.

                                    Did research on this very issue (with respect to Atlantic salmon) in Iceland for several months in 2002.

                                    Will not get into the specifics of what constitutes "genetically diiferent" nor what constitutes a species for we risk digressing into scientific quandries beyond the point of this board.

                                    1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                      Most farmed fish is freshwater, ergo landlocked tanks or cages in rivers and lakes. I now see that you must mean that Iceland grows salt water species in landlocked tanks (?). I believe the Australians or Kiwis do as well.

                                      GM salmon are obviously genetically different but of the same species as their wild relatives. Salmon and trout are different species. Most farmed salmon is not GM and therefore not genetically different from wild relatives of the same species. What's the big deal?

                                      Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but it is the "farmed" part of the farmed salmon that has been responsible for introduction of disease in wild populations, not the fact that they are genetically modified. Relative crowding makes farmed populations more susceptible to diseases that are extant but relatively rare in open populations.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        Atlantic salmon are not considered strictly saltwater species per se. They are what zoologists refer to as anadromous which means they live in the sea, but come back to spawn in freshwater rivers. Diadromous species follow the opposite of this pattern.

                                        Again, I would like to reiterate that the definition of species is under serious debate in the scientific, and more specifically the zoological community. What we used to refer to as a species is changing quite rapidly due to emerging information in the area of molecular genetics, among other things.

                                        Trout are actually part of the same taxonomic family as salmon. And trout is a pretty loose term when referring to fish.

                                        In my initial post, I was not strictly speaking of GM fish (as I actually never even used this term), however, you are correct in pointing out part of the problem with fish farms is the crowding aspect, which can indeed cause disease susceptibility (and thus transmitance to wild populations).

                                        But to get back to food ;) and the original point of this post, I think it should be a "big deal" to discuss where our food comes from, how we raise and consume it, and to have an open dialogue about this at all times. Food is a natural resource, and we should treat it with the same respect as other resources. Thanks for the post Sam!

                                        1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                          Yes, but the question was, do the Icelanders raise true salt-water and/or anadromous or diadromous species in landlocked tanks? If so, it would avert problems of both disease and genetic contamination of wild populations.

                                          I'm an agricultural scientist. Many of my colleageus are plant geneticists. We do a lot with molecular marker technologies. We don't have any problems with species. We do sometimes argue the existance of bio-types--differentiation at the sub-specific level of insects. That trout and salmon are of the same family makes no difference to our discussion: they are different species.

                                          Yes, you didn't mention GM salmon. But I thought the fast weight gain characteristic was not conventionally bred, but was a GM output. In any case, it is the only genetic difference I know about--although I'm not a zoologist and don't work with fish (other than with rice-fish systems in Asia).

                                          Yes, back to food (and this is directed at others): surimi and kamaboko are traditional Japanese (and even kosher!) foods. WE never told the Americans to go and sell it as fake crab!

                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka


                                            Yes. Icelanders raise Atlantic salmon in landlocked tanks. That was the original point of my post.

                                            It's great to know that you are an agricultural scientist. Then I presume you have a very clear understanding of the difference between plant and animal genetics. Without telling you what I do, because I personally don't think it matters, and it brings us away from the topic of food, I would like to say that what zoologists previously defined as a species (two animals that are distinct based on their inability to breed and produce viable offspring) is changing in that it has been discovered that some previously distinct "species" have the ability to breed. Scientist actually know so little about oceanic ecosystems, in fact, and you can appreciate this, the more we discover, the less we realize we actually know!

                                            Like others that have posted here, I want to know whether what I'm eating is real or an artificially produced product, and this allows all of us to make informed decisions about what we choose to consume. It's about discourse, and in that discourse, we can appreciate and value food for what it is that much more.

                                            1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                              Splendid, thanks, but just one last: do YOU think, as do some others, that fish cakes are an "artificially produced product"?

                                              Applehome and I see them as "real" and culturally, environmentally, and economically sensible. But, we, like some of the salmon, may be swimming upstream on this one.

                                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                I think that fish cakes are very real in the sense that they contain some animal product, and are an alternative to depleting endangered and/or threatened crab species, but an artificially produced product in the sense that they are manipulated by people. But there's always good with the bad. Sometimes I feel that by producing food alternatives (ie: replacing a "natural" product with something else) leads us away from thinking about the source of our food. And like others that have posted here, there are so many other environmental, economic, and cultural cumulative effects that occur in the production of food.

                                                Man, I could debate this all day. I think this board is so great in that it is generating such a free dialogue on these issues. Thanks Sam, you've made me think of this issue in a whole new light.

                                                1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                                                  And, do not forget the Red Dye #5 (since #2 was banished in the '80s), that goes into the creation of "Krab." I guess that Dow has a sustainable commodity there.


                                2. re: K K

                                  Get a copy of National Geographic this month to get a status of Bluefin. We've fished the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian ocean stock into virtual extinction, and we've turned our eye on the Mediterranean stock. There are numerous fattening pen operations in Spain and Italy, but much of the fattened tuna is sold at 2-3 years, before spawning. There are so many operations outside of governmental controls that the fish are being decimated right before our eyes, and there's nothing to do - the free market says that as long as the demand is there, someone's going to fill it.

                                  1. re: applehome

                                    I'm with you all the way. Fortunately, even free markets have regulations to avoid the "tragedy of the commons" (i.e., group mis-use of common property resources). Let's just hope for our kids--our daughter is three.

                                3. re: applehome

                                  Sorry to have to say this but "applehome" you need to know how a product is made before you make these nonsense comments. There is nothing artisanal or that has to do with "using up lesser parts of an animal" when it comes to making surimi. Surimi is made from perfectly edible species of fish...both texture and flavor...they are not polular/ widely know/eaten in the US but thay are OK to eatr as is. Surimi is not made form the remaints of fish that have been filleted, are using 100% edible fish species and getting minimal recovery....same thing is done when fish meal is produced or when herring is caught only for the roe and the rest of the fish (perfectly edible) is turned into fish meal or off to dump. Furthemore, surini is very energy intensive, produces hudge amount of waste products (waste water) and the recovery from a whole fish is v. low in the range of 20-30%....basically if you buy the main ingredient for next to nothing you can make profit. Surimi is high in sugars and glycerol....not exactly stuff I want and if you look carefuly the proce is getting to be almost in line with real crab's just bussines......

                                  1. re: Pollo

                                    See the link on my earlier post. It's pretty clear how Japanese make surimi. Kamaboko and other fishcakes in Japan have been made for centuries from fish that were not the most desireable in their basic form - fish that weren't eaten whole, and were often by-products of other catch. The parallel with chacuterie is that labor is substituted (artisanal or otherwise) to make foods that would not normally be eaten by people, more acceptable. There is plenty of waste product with sausage making, as well, but certainly more meat is eaten that would have otherwise been wasted (or used for other purposes).

                                    Perhaps the bigger point, for chowhound purposes is that the cuisine, once again sausages and surimi alike, is wonderful for its own sake. So my reaction to anyone that says that this form of food "isn't okay in anything to me" is that it's a very naive position to take - if not in terms of sustainability, then certainly in terms of cuisine.

                                    Comparing sustainability and profit issues for these processes would be interesting - whether it's better to take undesirable fish and make meal to feed to desireable fish in farms, or process them to create a more directly marketable product. But where surimi has been made for centuries, there is an existant cultural preference that businesses understand very well. Even if there is no such market in the US, there most certainly is in Japan. Maybe in the US, organ meats from hogs, cattle and sheep are used mostly to feed pets or even other hogs, cattle, and sheep. In other parts of the world, they are eaten by people!

                                  2. re: applehome

                                    Maybe we should all learn to eat, and enjoy, farm-raised catfish and be done with it.


                                4. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  Yes, but the sushi places don't call it "surimi". If you order crab and avocado et al, you get the fake stuff automatically. It does not say surimi and avo roll at all. That's my problem with it. Don't actually call it crab when it's not.

                                5. I will unrepentently state that I enjoy surimi, although there is still good versus bad surimi. However, I also enjoy crab and I've not yet been confused by someone substituting surimi for crab and am annoyed when "crab" stands for surimi in a dish (like crap dips, maki, etc.). I feel that there is a right to complain to management that when crab is stated in a menu it should be crab and not surimi (although I assume all california rolls have surimi, no matter what is said on the menu).

                                  I would rather have cheap surimi than nasty cheap chemical-tasting mechanically separated crab meat that is then shredded into unrecognizable bits.