If you’re anything like me, not much beats cracking into a bucket of sweet crabs at one of Florida’s outposts, like Ft. Lauderdale’s beloved Rustic Inn or world famous Joe’s Stone Crab. Not to be outdone are the fleeting soft-shelled version found further north in Maryland or those luscious 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 delicacy and staple and folks travel as far as Sri Lanka just for the famous mud crab curry.
Because of this voracious demand and 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 the 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 sushi roll where you assumed regular crab would be. But what exactly is the difference between crab and imitation crab? Or more specifically, what exactly is imitation crab, besides a market-based solution to an economic and bio-culinary quandary? And how does it differ from regular crab in taste, texture, ingredients, and nutrition, and most importantly…should you eat it?
Imitation crab, “Krab” or “crab stick,” as it’s often called is, of course, not really crab at all as the name suggests. In most cases it’s something called “surimi” or a puree of whitefish, generally Alaskan pollack, which is cooked, ground into a paste along with glutinous fillers, additives and other nefarious ingredients like corn, sugar, starches, and seasonings. From there it’s molded into various shapes and colored to mimic the look and texture of real crab. If tuna is dubbed “chicken of the sea” well then Krab might as well be the “hot dog.”
Imitation crab sticks or surimi, Bayurov Alexander/Shutterstock
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 human person with at least one functioning taste bud will tell you the flavor is duller, saltier, and the texture far denser and more rubbery, whereas real crab is bright, fresh, and naturally sweet tasting, and flaky 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 imitation crab brands on the market include Trans Ocean and Louis Kemp, the latter of which makes a marketing plea to consider that at least it’s not an “artificial food” as some might suggest. This is true; its base ingredient is technically seafood, but it’s important to note that because many brands use wheat-based glutens to achieve the desired texture, imitation crab products are generally not gluten-free like real crab and contain higher carbohydrate and sugar counts with much less protein. Quite a few also contain MSG, a somewhat notorious sodium substitute used in budget-friendly Chinese food.
Included on an extremely 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 “absolutely not”, certainly not if you can help it, and there’s absolutely nothing that compares to the real thing in every way, including taste. But in a pinch, and in dishes where the ‘crab’ can hide, like crab rangoon or cheap saucy sushi, for instance, 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 California Roll Salad 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 one of my absolute favorite dishes on the planet. This recipe pulls from Sri Lanka’s much-celebrated version. Would not recommend using imitation here. Get the Sri Lankan Crab Curry recipe.
Almost TOO easy and delicious, everyone should have a good crab salad recipe in their repertoire for summer picnics or to serve scooped over endive at a breezy cocktail party. Use fresh or canned crab meat for this one. Get our Crab Salad 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.