What is Kanikama (Surimi)?

What is Kanikama (Surimi)?

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If you have enjoyed California sushi rolls before, you have probably relished the taste of pink and succulent imitation crab sticks. I remember when I was a beginner at eating sushi, I believed the crab sticks were made of real crab meat until a Japanese friend told me these were fake crab meat, known as Kanikamai n Japanese.

So, what is Kanikama (Surimi)? Kanikama is the imitation or fake crab meat produced from surimi paste that is made by grinding various species of white fish (mostly Alaska Pollock). Different types of seasonings, additives, and binders are also added to the paste. Surimi is then shaped into sticks.

Sometimes, surimi paste may be flavored to mimic the taste of various types of shellfish. However, in most cases, you will find Kanikama imitating the taste of real crab meat, which is too pricey. As a result, restaurants, as well as home cooks, prefer the fake stuff that costs less and tastes almost like the ‘real’ thing.

Also known as imitation crab, it is one of the widely used ingredients in sushi and a variety of other dishes. It is a much sought after item that disappears fast from the shelves. So, what’s the reason behind its popularity? Why do people prefer it so much despite knowing that this is fake/imitation stuff?

Read on to find more about kanikama surimi, it’s origin, interesting facts, what differentiates it from real crab meat, the benefits, uses, downsides, production process, and so on.


How To Tell The Difference Between The Fake And Real Crab Meat

A person who has not eaten imitation crab meat like this before will hardly guess that the crab meat inside his sushi roll is not real crab but made of assorted meat from white fish. You can experiment this with someone you know who has not tasted Kanikama before and he will not have a clue.

However, that does not mean that there’s no difference between surimi and the real crab meat. The food connoisseurs know it well and they can tell even if they are blindfolded. So, the next time you get  crab meat in a California roll, here are a few things to know:

The difference in color:

The real crab meat has a light pinkish skin on the outside, which looks pretty natural. In case of imitation crab stick, the outer strip is bright red in color due to artificial coloring. Real crab meat does not have such a deep red hue.

The difference in texture:

If you find it difficult to tell the difference in color, try to find clues in the meat texture. The imitation crab sticks are artificially prepared from grounded meat of white fish so you cannot find any ridges and furrows in them. In the real crab meat, you can find the natural wavy texture.

The difference in flavor:

This one is quite tricky because even those who have eaten imitation crab sticks before cannot tell whether they are eating the fake or real thing when blindfolded. The flavor of surimi and crab meat are almost the same.

Kanikama has a milder taste with sweet flavors that feels very similar to the taste of crab meat. It also contains less fat than the real stuff, thus people who enjoy eating crab but want to cut back on their cholesterol intake prefer this type of food.


Interesting Facts About Kanikama (Surimi)

Let’s start by the name. Imitation crab sticks are popular around the world and people call it by different names. For example, you may call it Kanikama but there are others who call it Surimi, Kani Boko, or seafood sticks. Despite the slight difference in color and furrows, it’s almost the same in taste and flavor.

In Japanese, Kani means crab and Kanikama is the short-form of kani-kamaboko, which translates to crab fish cakes. According to Canadian food laws, imitation crab sticks cannot be labeled as real crab meat, although it can be called crab flavor.

Crab stick nigiri sushi

As Kanikama (Surimi) is significantly cheaper than real crab meat, fancy restaurants find it more cost-effective to use this as ingredients in their sushi rolls and nigiri sushi. If you are a fan of crab meat but can’t afford to buy the real thing, you may buy Kanikama (Surimi) available in any Asian grocery store.

While it tastes the same, some people are not comfortable with the thought that they have no idea about what binding agents or chemicals are used in the making of surimi. The experience is unlike traditional sushi in which you know exactly what is inside the roll.

When eating a sushi roll that contains imitation crab sticks, you are actually putting your trust in the hands of other people, believing that they have done the right thing.

You may eat Kanikama as it is or use it as an ingredient in various dishes. The crab stick tempura is one of my favorite and it can be used in sushi rolls to make a scrumptious meal. You can also use them to make crabsticks cabbage dumplings, crab stick sauce, or stewed crab sticks.

Besides tasting great, imitation crab meat is also a rich source of proteins, vitamins, and minerals that help in safeguarding your health. The low amount of fat works best for people wanting to watch their weight.

Origin of Kanikama (Surimi)

The practice of grounding white meat to pass it off as imitation crab started in 1973 when a Japanese company thought of this concept. It became an instant hit and other companies also realized the potential of this market.

Around this time, another company named Osaki Suisan realized how profitable this venture was and they soon started producing imitation crab sticks. They went ahead and patented the item in 1974. Soon after they started manufacturing Kanikama in full swing and sold it under different names such as krab sticks, ocean sticks, sea legs and so on.

According to the company, Kanikama has undergone numerous developments since it released in the 1970s. Today, it almost tastes like real crab meat although only 50% constitutes of fish meat and the rest include crab flavorings and additives to give it a glutinous texture.

In 1986, the production of Kanikama reached its peak and much of the fake imitation crab meat was destined for export in the US. Today, the US is one of the biggest producers of kanikama and even exports them to Japan.

While some food traditionalists in Japan may raise an eyebrow on sushi restaurants using Kanikama or surimi meat in the place of real crab meat, it is a common thing in the US. Most sushi restaurants in America use different types of fish substitutes for making rolls and it’s widely accepted.

Benefits Of Using Surimi

Surimi is about one-third the price of real crab. As most people can’t afford the real thing, they are happy with the imitation yet crab-flavored substitute. 

Using kanikama is easy because it’s pre-cooked food and you don’t need to do anything before adding to a sushi roll or salad. It can also be used as a grab-and-go snack when you are really hungry. It tastes really good with a dipping sauce.

If the additives in the imitation crab concerns you then you just need to be more aware and careful when picking it up from the grocery store or ordering online. There are many healthier versions available, just like there are hot dogs substitutes.

There are some surimi brands that contain more natural ingredients such as cane sugar, sea salt, pea starch, and natural added flavors. However, natural products cost more and they are not always available.

Some of these products are gluten-free and they do not contain any GMO or genetically modified ingredients. A few may also be certified to ensure that the ingredients were sustainably sourced.

Downsides Of Using Surimi

Kanikama is a highly processed substitute of real crab that contains additives and seafood. It may contain mislabelling, environmental and allergic concerns. As a result of this, the use of imitation crabs is often seen as an environmental hazard. Let’s look closer and understand why.

Talking about the environmental impact, surimi is made from white Pollock fish and a surge in the popularity of imitation crabs led to the overfishing of this species. This has also led to endangering of animals like the Steller sea lions that feed on Pollock fish.

With Pollock fish decreasing in numbers, some surimi manufacturers are fast turning to other white-fleshed seafood such as squid and cod. Some companies may even use non-fish meats such as pork, beef, or deboned chicken to make surimi but this is rare.

A lot of water is wasted in order to wash the minced fish used in making imitation crabsticks. This is done to improve the texture, smell, and color, but results in wastage of water.

Some manufacturers do not clearly label or list the ingredients used in making imitation crab products. Thus, it makes customers vulnerable to allergy risks.

There have been a lot of cases regarding the mislabelling of products in the surimi industry. Lack of proper information and labeling can risk people’s exposure to food allergies.

Ways To Enjoy Imitation Crabsticks

Despite the various warnings and potential downsides, the popularity of imitation crab sticks have only gone up and one of the biggest reasons is convenience. This convenience comes in various forms – the ability to easily grab one from the refrigerated section of stores and being able to eat them straight out of the bag without heating or cooking them.

There are several ways in which you can eat kanikama besides using it in a sushi roll or salad. It can be used as a useful ingredient in making delicious crab cakes, stir-fries, pasta dishes, pizza toppings, quesadillas, sautees, chowders and so on. You can use them in the form of sticks, flaked, shredded or chunked.

Vegan Alternatives For Kanikama (Surimi)

If you are a vegan and wondering whether that chunk of red and white meat stuffed in a sushi roll or mixed with mayo in the salad is eatable then sadly it’s not. While the imitation crab meat is not real crab, we have already discussed above that it contains pulverized meat of white-fleshed fish and other seafood paste.

As a vegan, you have no other alternative but avoid this imitation food that contains a good amount of seafood in it. Those who would to try something similar on their plate but vegan in nature, we have a few alternatives for them.

Jackfruit is often referred to as the vegan crab and its beauty is that it can soak up any flavor and has a nice meaty texture. So, if you have recently turned vegan and need something to control your surimi cravings, we suggest that you try making this vegan crab salad.

Some restaurants also serve vegan crab cakes that are an amazing alternative to imitation crabs. For California rolls, several surimi substitutes like smoked tofu, savory seitan and marinated mushrooms may be used.

Related Article: 8 Exciting Recipes For Vegetarian Sushi

Ingredients Used In Making Surimi

As mentioned earlier, the main ingredient used in this dish is white fish, specifically Alaska Pollock. However, some companies may also add other types of fish meat that are white in color. Some other ingredients include eggs, sugar, salt, and additional flavorings.

When the white fish meat is grounded, the appearance is not as appealing. As a result, you need to add some red color to make it look good.

Adding red color to the outside gives people the impression that it’s closer to the real thing and the crab sticks fly off shelves in no time. Some companies may add real crab extract to make the dish smell and taste more like the real stuff.

Preparing Kanikama (Surimi) At Home

I know many people may be apprehensive about eating imitation crab sticks because they don’t have any idea what goes inside it. If you feel the same way, here is a quick and easy method to make your own imitation crab cakes at home.

By preparing surimi at home, you can enjoy the comfort of eating the right stuff and still enjoy the taste of crab meat without having to pay for the real thing. Regardless of how complicated it might sound, preparing surimi at home is actually much easier than you think.

Start by selecting white fish species for making the crab sticks. After you have chosen the fish, get rid of the outer skin and bones (if any). To quicken the process, consider buying fish that has skin and bones removed. If you have to do it yourself, be very careful because leaving bones in the meat can choke the person who eats the sticks.

After the unwanted items are removed, you need to look into the smell of the fish. Some people find it difficult to stand the ‘fishy’ smell so the next step includes neutralizing the odor. To do this, hold the fish under running cold water for a long time until all the fishy smell is removed. It will also help you get rid of any skin still on the outer body.

Now that you have the odorless and fresh white meat of fish at your disposal, proceed to pulverize the meat thoroughly to give you a smooth and consistent paste. At this point, you may add flavorings (in this case crab meat flavor) before cooking the meat.

When the paste is thoroughly cooked and cooled, you may shape them into different forms as you like. As the fish is completely white at this time, you may proceed to color the outer skin so that it may look like a crab.

If you don’t plan on using the Kanikama or surimi immediately, you may store it in an airtight container inside the refrigerator for about two months.

To keep it good for longer, you may store the imitation crab meat in the freezer. When vacuum sealed, it can stay inside the freezer for up to 6 months. After you open the jar, it should be consumed within three days.

If you don’t have the time to make Kanikama at home, you may buy imitation crab sticks from the store. Make sure you read the instructions regarding how to store the sticks. I would recommend that you buy surimi from a reputable brand that limits the number of chemicals used in the preparation.

The delicious crab sticks can be used in soups and salad, however, the most common use is in making California sushi rolls. You can find the recipe for making inside-out California rolls using surimi here. I would like to share one of my favorite use of imitation crab sticks below –  kanikama tempura sushi recipe.

To Cook Or Not To Cook Kanikama

There is a lot of confusion whether the imitation crab sticks are raw or cooked. My friend, who knows that I own a sushi blog often ask me ‘Does Kanikama (surimi) need to be cooked?’ Well, the answer is No. These crab cakes are made of a pulverized and fully cooked fish meat.

You can eat the delicious crab legs straight out of the packet. They can be served frozen or at room temperature with a variety of dipping sauces. They can be used in sushi rolls or nigiri sushi as is or made into delicious tempura to add extra crunchiness to sushi.

Most people believe that imitation crab sticks taste best when they are not cooked further. Although they are considered pre-cooked, you can still use them as an ingredient in several cooked dishes. If you wish to add kanikama in a cooked dish, make sure you do in the last stage so that it barely gets warm.

Another common argument is that fully cooked meat varieties such as hams and wieners require you to heat the product to a certain temperature to kill any parasites. While it’s normal to feel insecure about eating packaged food as is, there are no cases of food contamination from Kanikama to date.

Kanikama Tempura Sushi Roll Recipe

  • Cooked sushi rice
  • Vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Nori sheets
  • Japanese Cucumbers

For the tempura

  • 250 grams imitation crab sticks
  • 1 Egg
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Garlic
  • Mayonnaise
  • Finely chopped celery
  • Lemon juice

To create the tempura, take a medium-sized bowl and mix all the items together. Shape each piece into a rectangle and put them inside the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Now, heat oil in a pan on medium flame. Wait until the oil becomes hot and then put the refrigerated pieces for frying. Cook on medium heat until the pieces become brown on both sides.

After you have made all tempuras, it’s now time to start preparing for sushi. For this, first, you need to cook short-grain sushi rice and then season it with vinegar, salt, and sugar. To find step-by-step instruction, read this article.

Peel the cucumber and cut it into half horizontally from the middle. Now, make eight thin strips of each half by cutting vertically.

To make sushi, place the bamboo mat on the working surface and keep the Nori sheet on it, rough side facing upwards.

Moisten your fingers and take a medium ball of sushi rice and spread it over the Nori. Press gently to make an even layer.

Now, arrange the Kanikama tempura on the Nori, by placing them closer to you. You can arrange two lengthwise to cover the Nori sheet.

Put the cucumber strips next to the tempura to add freshness to your roll. You may add avocado slices if you don’t like the taste of cucumber in your sushi.

To start rolling, lift the Nori sheet from your end and roll to make a compact cylinder until you reach the end. Now, seal the ends with a few drops of water or few rice grains.

Take a sharp Japanese knife, moisten the blade and cut the sushi roll into 6-8 equal pieces. Serve with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger.

Related Questions

Why do restaurants around the world use Kanikama

Restaurants usually use this substitute for real crab meat because it is significantly cheaper than the real thing. You can get an ounce of surimi for 20-30 cents while canned salmon or tuna is usually 50-60 cents per ounce. Real crab and lobster meat are much more expensive.

Does storage impact the taste and texture of surimi

No, ground surimi meat is processed in a way that the taste and texture is not changed even after storage. If you bought a sealed bag of imitation crab sticks, you can put it straight inside the freezer and it can stay good up to 6 months.

However, if you have opened the seal and thawed the crab sticks, you must consume it within 3 days when refrigerated.

Can pregnant women eat Kanikama (surimi)

You may be craving for crab sticks during pregnancy but I would recommend that you talk to your gynecologist before eating a California roll. While the fish used in making surimi meat is low in mercury levels, the imitation crab sticks are high on sodium content.

How many calories in Kanikama

A serving size of 100 grams of Kanikama, contains about 85 grams calories, 11 grams carbs, and9 grams protein.

Should you heat or not heat kanikama

Many cooked meat varieties such as hams and wieners require you to reheat them in a specific temperature order to destroy the nasties. Sometimes the packaged food may be contaminated at the time of packaging. While surimi can be eaten straight out of the package, there’s no guarantee regarding the contamination. Hence, it’s wiser to heat it and any other processed food that you come across.

How long will frozen surimi keep in my refrigerator?

Depending on the type of brand, a package of frozen surimi has a shelf life of 70 days to four months from the date of manufacture, when it is kept in temperature below 38 degrees in a sealed bag. Always pay attention to the ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ date.

How long will the surimi stay good after opening the package?

After you have opened the seal, the remaining portion can stay good for 3-5 days based on how good your refrigerator freezes. We suggest that you keep it in an airtight container or ziplocked bag for optimum freshness.

What’s the best way to thaw frozen surimi?

The best way to thaw them is to leave the frozen crab sticks in the refrigerator overnight. Small packets will thaw in a few hours while bigger packets may take an entire day. To thaw quickly, run cool water over the frozen package for 10-20 minutes or until they are thawed.

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