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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

To make dressing: In a small non-reactive container, combine all ingredients. Add to salad; toss. Cover and refrigerate 15 to 20 minutes, turning the container over periodically to distribute the dressing.

Recipe adapted from "High-Flavor Low-Fat Cooking" (Camden House, 1992) by Steven Raichlen.

Per serving: 126 calories, 7 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 16 grams carbohydrates, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 417 milligrams sodium.

Teriyaki rice and surimi salad

Serves 6 to 8

1/4 cup light soy sauce

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon molasses

1/2 teaspoon grated ginger root

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

4 cups cooked white rice, cooled

1/4 pound snow peas, trimmed, blanched and cooled

4 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon sesame oil

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

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

In a small saucepan, combine the soy sauce, brown sugar, molasses, ginger root and cornstarch. Turn heat to medium and bring to a boil, stirring. Cook and stir until thickened. Cool this sauce.

Combine remaining ingredients except the sesame seeds in a bowl. When sauce is cool, toss with rice mixture. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

To blanch the peas: Place the peas in boiling water and cook just until they turn bright green. Drain and cool immediately in cold water. You can also substitute frozen snow peas that have been thawed.

To toast sesame seeds: Place seeds in a skillet over medium heat, tossing the pan often to turn the seeds. Cook until golden. The seeds burn quickly, so be sure to keep an eye on them.

Per serving: 230 calories, 8 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 43 grams carbohydrates, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 545 milligrams sodium.

Inspiration for the next salad came from a traditional Waldorf salad recipe. But a few island touches makes it much more exciting. If you are cutting fat from your diet, use the low-fat ingredients suggested here.

Tropical surimi Waldorf

Serves 6

SURIMI SALAD:

1 red Delicious apple, cored and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 Granny Smith apple, cored and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 Bartlett pear, cored and cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 rib celery, chopped

4 scallions with green parts, chopped

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

TROPICAL DRESSING:

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk

1/4 cup sour cream

GARNISH:

2 tablespoons celery seeds, optional

6 large lettuce leaves

To make salad: In a large bowl, combine all ingredients.

To make dressing: In a non-reactive bowl, combine all ingredients. Toss with salad. Place a lettuce leaf on each of 6 individual serving plates. Top with a portion of the salad. Sprinkle each with 1 teaspoon celery seeds, if desired.

Per serving: 311 calories, 7 grams protein, 23 grams fat, 23 grams carbohydrates, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 517 milligrams sodium.

Low-fat variation: Use light coconut milk, no-fat sour cream and fat-free, cholesterol-free mayonnaise. Per serving: 152 calories, 6 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 25 grams carbohydrates, 9

milligrams cholesterol, 660 milligrams sodium.

Sesame surimi salad

Serves 4

DRESSING:

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

SALAD:

1 (8-ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained and rinsed

6 ounces crab-flavored surimi chunks cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (1 cup)

7 scallions, chopped

4 cups torn assorted greens

1 cup chow-mein noodles

To make dressing: In a small non-reactive bowl, whisk together nTC all the dressing ingredients; set aside.

To make salad: In a large bowl, combine all salad ingredients except greens and chow-mein noodles. Add dressing; toss gently to coat. Cover; chill 1 hour.

Place a portion of greens on each of 4 individual serving plates. Top each with a portion of the surimi mixture; sprinkle with 1/4 cup chow-mein noodles. Recipe adapted from one provided by La Choy.

Per serving: 202 calories, 8 grams protein, 8 grams fat, 26 grams carbohydrates, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 678 milligrams sodium.

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