If you’re anything like me, not much beats cracking into a bucket of sweet crabs at one of Florida’s famed outposts, like Ft. Lauderdale’s Rustic Inn or famous Joe’s Stone Crab. Not to be outdone are the fleeting soft-shelled version found further north in Maryland or Peekytoes pulled from the cold waters of Maine and Massachusetts.
It turns out there are, indeed, quite a few people like me and crab continues to be one of the most in-demand and celebrated seafoods both stateside and abroad. In places like Japan and Indonesia, it’s both a delicacy and staple and some foodies travel to Sri Lanka just for the mud crab curry.
Because of this voracious demand and a supply that teeters at the whim of climate change, extreme weather patterns (see: climate change), and even politics, crab prices—already high by seafood standards—can reach astronomical levels. The revered Alaskan King Crab sells for as much as $50 a pound and don’t forget how much of that weight is shell. It’s all enough to make one a little, well, crabby.
Enter Krab (or imitation crab meat). Maybe you’ve seen it in the frozen foods section of your local grocer or noticed it subbed in, perhaps slyly, in a California Roll where you assumed regular crab would be. But what is it, exactly, besides an economic solution to a culinary quandary? And how does it differ from regular crab in taste, texture, and nutrition and, most importantly, should you eat it?
Imitation crab, “Krab” or “crab stick,” as it’s often called is, of course, decidedly not crab at all, as the name suggests. In most cases it’s something called “Surimi:” a puree of whitefish, generally pollack or similar, which is cooked, ground into a paste along with glutinous fillers, corn, sugar, starches, and seasonings, and molded into various shapes to replicate the real stuff. If tuna is indeed “the chicken” of the sea, well then Krab might very well be the “hot dog.”
Imitation crab is naturally far more inexpensive than fresh or even canned crab (an 8-oz. bag runs anywhere from $3-10) and though the general flavor is similar, any chef, gourmand, or other person with functioning taste buds will tell you the texture is far more dense and rubbery, where real crab is flakey to the touch. Because of the noticeable difference, crab stick is often served strategically in dishes with ingredients to mask its shortcomings, like the aforementioned California Roll or seafood salads slicked with mayonnaise.
A few popular brands on the market include Trans Ocean and Louis Kemp, the latter of which makes something of a plea via its website to consider that at the very least it’s not “fake” or “artificial” as some might suggest. This is true; its base ingredient is technically seafood, but it’s important to note that because because many brands use wheat-based glutens to achieve a desired texture, most imitation crab products are not gluten-free like real crabmeat and contain higher carbohydrate and sugar counts with less protein.
Quite a few also contain MSG, a notorious sodium substitute used often in budget-friendly Chinese cooking. Included on a very short list of bragging rights, imitation crab spoils far less quickly and most versions are safe for those with a shellfish allergy.
So the question remains, should you cook with or eat imitation crab meat? Most chefs I spoke with unsurprisingly said no, certainly not if you can help it, and there’s absolutely nothing that compares to the real thing. But in a pinch, and for a dish where the the ‘crab’ can hide out a little, it just may suffice.
Hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
Speaking of imitation this California Roll Salad mimics the flavors of the Americanized version of a sushi roll and calls for real-deal crab meat instead. Get the recipe.
For these Easy Crab Cakes you’re ok using canned crab, but if you can get your hands on the real stuff, go for it! Get our Easy Crab Cakes recipe.
Crab curry is arguably my favorite food on the planet. This recipe pulls from Sri Lanka’s much-celebrated version. Get the recipe.
If you find yourself blessed with a bounty of fresh crab on a hot summer afternoon, don’t be afraid to keep it simple as with our Steamed Dungeness Crab recipe.
Not-exactly-diet-friendly Hot Crab Dip is a crowd pleaser featuring one of seafood’s very best friends: Old Bay Seasoning. Get our Hot Crab Dip recipe.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Koenig aus Japan/Shutterstock and Bayurov Alexander/Shutterstock.