What Are Those Pseudo-Shellfish? Here Is a Guide

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What are those pseudo-shellfish? Here is a guide

It looks like crab--snowy white, tinged with red. It even has a fresh-crab aroma. But the label says it's imitation.

Shellfish look-alikes--crab, shrimp, scallop, and lobster substitutes--are appearing in more and more restaurants and grocery stores. They cost half to a third the price of the real thing. But what are they? And how do you use them? Pictured above are seven forms; on pages 240 and 242 are ways to make use of them.

The products are made from real fish, by a method evolved from traditional Japanese food-preservation techniques.

Pacific whitefish, mostly pollock, is harvested, skinned, and boned. The meat is then chopped and repeatedly rinsed in clear cold water to wash away color and odor. What remains is a light-colored, gelatinous paste the Japanese call surimi. The rinsed fish paste is mixed with sugar and sorbitol (to hold moisture in the fish; it's a substance that is about 1/3 less sweet than sugar), then frozen.

The traditional form of surimi is sold in Japanese markets and restaurants as kamaboko (fish cake), a half-moon-shaped log, usually with a bright pink rim. But the same mixture can be processed further to make very convincing (in appearance, texture, and taste) shellfish substitutes. They're now sold in freezer cases and, thawed, in fish counters in the West.

Whitefish today, lobster tail tomorrow

To create crab, shrimp, lobster, or scallop facsimiles from thawed surimi, producers add a mixture of starch, egg whites, and natural and/or artificial flavors. Some companies also mix in a small amount of the shellfish being mimicked.

The thick, creamy fish paste goes through a machine (much like a pasta machine) that extrudes surimi. It's then cut or pressed into the shape desired. Natural or artificial color may be added for visual effect. After steaming, the cooked shellfish substitute is then packaged and frozen to be shipped to the market.

Why an imitation, anyway?

Faced with the fluctuating seasonal supplies and ever-rising costs of fresh shellfish, seafood marketers have been seeking ways to meet the demand for a product that's consistent in quality, lower in price, and available year-round. They've found their answer deep in the Pacific, off Alaska --great numbers of whitefish, mainly pollock, that until recently held little commercial interest. Today these fish supply surimi industries both here and in Japan.

Where to find surimi-based products

Imitation shellfish made its market debut in the late 1970s. Each year since then, production has nearly doubled, and surimi products have become increasingly easy to find. Look in the freezer case alongside fish products or (for shredded imitation crab) in the fresh fish and seafood case. Expect to pay $3 to $5 per pound for surimi-based imitation shellfish.

What about nutrition?

Nutritionally, surimi compares with pollock (the fish it's made from) rather than the shellfish it resembles. Those who avoid shrimp because of its high cholesterol count may enjoy this lower-cholesterol substitute. But because salt is added during processing, sodium content is considerably higher than in unsalted fresh seafood.

You should also keep in mind that cholesterol, salt, and sugar content vary with product and manufacturers.

Surimi-based products might seem a boon for those who are allergic to shellfish. But allergic persons should read labels carefully (or check with the waiter in a restaurant) to see whether some natural shellfish has been added.

From fish to what?

In the '60s, soybeans found their way into many products as a protein extender.

Some experts in the surimi industry expect a similar future for their product. Because the supply of surimi is seemingly limitless, and because it lacks color, strong flavor, and odor and can be processed to take on various textures, much research is focused on using surimi in other products--processed lunch meats, sausage, bacon-flavored bits, heat-and-serve entrees, soups, food supplements, snack foods, pasta, even desserts. …