One of the more exasperatingly ambiguous food items you’re ever likely to come across, imitation crab (also known as krab or crab stick), can be found at just about every supermarket and neighborhood sushi spot. But what exactly is it, anyway? And should we be eating food that brags about being an “imitation” of some other food?
Imitation crab is a Japanese invention, first introduced in the early 1970s and introduced internationally a few years later. It’s actually comprised almost entirely of Alaska pollock, mixed with egg white or another binding ingredient, plenty of salt and crab flavoring that’s usually artificial but sometimes crab-derived, and formed into string cheese-sized strips with meat-like fibers. A layer of red food coloring is added to the outside and voila: imitation crab stick.
The most common application for crab sticks is probably in California rolls, which partners it with avocado and cucumber inside sushi rolls. You’ll also find crab salad behind the counters at a lot of deli counters, made with imitation crab, eggs, vegetables, herbs, and mayonnaise.
While it’s obviously a processed food, there’s really nothing to be afraid of, but we wouldn’t advise tucking into a plate of crab sticks with a squeeze of lemon and a cup of drawn butter like you would a real crab.