Some "fake food" products are perfectly good in their own right, if not quite as compelling as the real thing. One common example is imitation crab meat, sold in varying degrees of quality at supermarkets and by fishmongers. Inexpensive versions can be disappointingly mushy or gelatinous, but premium artificial crab is surprisingly good. The main ingredient in either case is plain white fish -- usually pollock -- but it travels an interesting road on its way to your California roll.
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It's Older Than You Think
Those identical sticks of pink-tinted "krab" might seem like an example of modern industrialized food production -- and they are -- but the product's roots go back centuries. The earliest forms of the food, then called kamaboko, go back at least 900 years in Japan and were made by hand at home. Japanese companies are also responsible for the modernized version, more commonly called kanikama or surimi.
The base ingredient of imitation crab is mild-flavored white fish. Most U.S.-made products use pollock or hake, caught off the coast of Alaska. The fish is first pressed to remove excess moisture; then it's minced, cooked, flavored and extruded into its final shape. Aside from seasonings, crab flavorings and the distinctive red or pink dye, the most important added ingredients help bind the pollock's muscle tissues together.
Natural proteins in the fish itself, called myosins, are among those binding agents. They're the same proteins that make your meatballs feel sticky if you handle the ground beef too much. They can be supplemented by a wide range of other ingredients, from starch-based gelling agents to egg whites. The goal is to create a product with a pleasant texture, reminiscent of real crab.
The first bite of a stick of imitation crab should tell you all you need to know about its quality. Poorly made surimi can feel "squishy" or gelatinous, if it contains too little fish, or tough and gummy if it uses too much binder.
The best brands have a delicate texture, much like real crab but without its distinctively stringy muscle fibers. Flavor is another clear indicator of quality. Inexpensive brands have a salty flavor that's only vaguely crab-like. Good-quality surimi can be surprisingly flavorful, and premium brands often incorporate some crab meat into their mixture. That's something to watch for, if you're comparing labels. Sodium levels are another indicator. Salt plays a disproportionate role in the flavoring of low-grade surimi, so brands with lower sodium levels are often better made.