Surimi, imitation crab meat, is succeeding on its own merits

September 19, 1993|By Deborah S. Hartz | Deborah S. Hartz,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

They call it imitation crab meat. You know, those chunks of white stuff with pink edges that you find in your supermarket's fish or meat case or made into "seafood" salad in the deli department.

But about 10 years ago, when I first tried imitation crab, I called it "awful."

I was attending a restaurant trade show in Chicago when producers introduced imitation crab meat made from surimi, a product developed by the Japanese a millennium ago.

Surimi is Alaskan pollock (or a similar fish with good gelling properties) that is boned, skinned, minced, washed and strained to make a flavorless, high protein paste. This is then mixed with additives such as salt, starch and egg white. And it is flavored (to make it into imitation crab, it is mixed with real shellfish meat, a shellfish extract or artificial shellfish flavoring). Finally, it is shaped to resemble the food it imitates, in this case, crab.

At that restaurant show, the marketers claimed that in years to come it would not only be dressed up like crab but also shaped and flavored into imitations of everything from shrimp to scallops to hot dogs to bologna.

Making inroads

Surimi didn't catch on overnight with me or anyone else, apparently. But today, it's making inroads as we all learn the advantages of this product. According to the Surimi Seafood Education Center, based in Arlington, Va., Americans eat an estimated 135 million pounds of surimi a year (up from 18 million pounds in 1982). It commonly is made into shrimp, lobster and crab clones. And domestic surimi seafood manufacturers (of which there are about a half dozen) predict consumption will grow 8 percent to 10 percent a year in the next decade.

The reasons: nutrition, convenience and price.

For most people watching their cholesterol intake, surimi made into imitation crab is an attractive option: A 3-ounce portion has -- 87 calories, 17 milligrams of cholesterol and 1 gram of fat. However, salt is used in its processing, so its sodium content is high. (Although sodium content varies by brand, it hovers around 700 milligrams per 3-ounce serving.)

Compare this with 3 ounces of shrimp, which has 90 calories, 1 gram of fat, 129 milligrams of cholesterol and 126 milligrams of sodium; or 3 ounces of skinless chicken breast, which has 140 calories, 72 milligrams of cholesterol, 3 grams of fat and 63 milligrams of sodium. Not to mention 3 ounces of real king crab meat, which has 72 calories, a half-gram of fat, 36 milligrams of cholesterol and 711 milligrams of sodium.

"If you are concerned about your cholesterol intake, the surimi product is best. But it is high in sodium," says dietitian Sandra Frank of Coral Springs, Fla.

The most common form of surimi available in supermarkets is chunks of imitation crab. But it also is shaped into "crab" claws, legs or sticks and flakes, plus a combination of chunks and flakes called "salad style."

The chunks often are frozen, thawed and rewrapped for sale. This thawed product will keep refrigerated for two or three days after purchase.

Imitation crab products also come in vacuum-sealed packages that keep unopened in the refrigerator for up to two months. And they come frozen; thaw just before using.

A pound of thawed chunks costs about $2.75, and there's no waste. Compare that to boneless, skinless chicken breast, at about $3.70 per pound; shelled, cooked shrimp at $12 to $22 per pound; or pasteurized crab meat at about $10 for 10 ounces.

Easy to use

And because they are fully cooked, surimi products are easy to use -- you can eat them straight from the package.

Given all that, I decided to give crab-flavored surimi another try.

And when I thought of it as real crab-flavored surimi -- not imitation anything else -- I began to see the possibilities.

Following are recipes that take advantage of this surimi's mildly sweet taste and somewhat rubbery (though not unpleasant) texture:

Citrus surimi salad

Serves 4 to 6

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

10 ounces crab-flavored surimi chunks cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)

6 scallions, chopped

3 oranges, peeled and cut into segments

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise and curry powder. In another bowl, mix the remaining ingredients. Add the mayonnaise mixture and stir gently to combine.

Per serving: 147 calories, 7 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrates, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 450 milligrams sodium.

Spicy surimi salad

Serves 4 to 6

SALAD:

1 small head napa cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

10 ounces crab-flavored surimi chunks cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (1 1/2 cups)

DRESSING:

3 scallions, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, chopped

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

To make salad: Combine the napa, red bell pepper and surimi in a large non-reactive container with tight-fitting lid.

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