By: Walter Nicolls

I f the Washington area is known for one food, one delicacy, that would be the meat of the blue crab------the beloved crustacean native to the Chesapeake Bay.

We wait for summer to pick with pride. Our seafood restaurants are judged, first and foremost, by the quality of their crab cakes. But, for the second year in a row Maryland Fishery officials have predicted that the blue crab harvest for Maryland portion of the Bay will only be 60% of the 20-year average of 37 million pounds due to “environmental conditions.”

Crab prices continue to climb. At the retail level, hard-shelled crabs have more than doubled in price during the last five years. Last week at Captain White’s Seafood City on Maine Avenue SW, a bushel of large No. 1 blue crabs was selling for $145. Jumbo lump crab meat costs $22.45 per pound there-----a reasonable price compared with some other areas seafood markets. What is a crab lover to do? There is an alternative-------sort of. Bad news from the Bay is a welcome turn of events for one of the largest manufacturers of imitation crabmeat in the United States. “When crabs get expensive we notice an increase in our sales.”

“There’s a lot of switching,” says Bill McClellan, vice-president and general manager of the Louis Kemp Seafood Co. , based in Downers Grove, Ill. “Retail sales are up 13% from last year for Kemp products such as “Crab Delights,” which the company introduced in 1986. Crab Delights sell for a fraction of the price of real crab-----about $3.75 for an 8-ounce package. For the past month Kemp has test-marketed a crab-flavored “Seafood Salad” in area supermarkets. Imitation crabmeat starts out as surimi (sir-REE-mee), which means “ground fish” in Japanese.

Fish wholesalers take lean, mild-tasting white-meat fish, such as Alaska pollock or Pacific whiting. They then fillet, mince, wash and freeze the fish meat into blocks before sending it to manufacturers who transforms the minced fish meat into crab fantasy.

After the blocks of raw fish are reprocessed, flavored with crab-based extract and fully cooked, it is called “surimi seafood.” Surimi is also made into products that imitate shrimp, lobster and scallops. (Note: people that are allergic to shellfish should not eat surimi because of the shellfish extract it contains.) Surimi seafood and the similar kamaboko

 fish cakes have been produced and consumed in Japan for more than 1,000 years, For the Japanese, surimi is traditional food and not a crab impostor.

“For us, we don’t think of it s an imitation product. We look at it as another type of fish,” says Kaz Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown Washington. Nonetheless, Food and Drug Administration regulations require that surimi-based products in the United States must be labeled as “imitation” if the product is “represented as any specific type of natural seafood”.

In the Japanese kitchen, slices or shreds of surimi seafood are added to hot soups or mixed with cold buckwheat noodles. “Just yesterday I had it for dinner,” says Fumiko Yokoyama, co-owner of Daruma Japan Market in Bethesda. “In summer I like to make a salad. I shred the surimi, chop some daikon radish, mix it with Japanese-style mayonnaise and top it with radish sprouts.” Crab-flavored seafood products were first imported to the United States in the late 1970s, and they have slowly gained acceptance and fans.

At a great many sushi bars, inside the California roll, crab-flavored surimi seafood is the circle of white, slightly chewy fiber meat next to the avocado, cucumber and fish roe. (In Japan crab surimi is not commonly used in such maki rolls) Over the decades, crab-flavored surimi seafood entered the mainstream and found a home at the salad bar and in the seafood department of most supermarkets. An estimated 185 million pounds of surimi was sold last year (1988) in the United States, according to Jae Park, founder and director of the Oregon State University Surimi Technology School. The consumption of surimi seafood is also in the rise in Russia, South America, China and Europe.

Park says.

In France it has tripled in the last 10 years, and continues to “expand rapidly” according to a recent report from the U. S. Department of Agriculture. “Surimi products meet the French consumer demand for Healthy and easy to prepare food “ the report concluded. In bakery shops along the boulevards of Paris the surimi sandwiches are standard fare. They add a little mayonnaise, seasoning and spread the stuff inside a baguette, Marie-Cecile Henard, an agricultural specialists at the U. S. Embassy in Paris , who wrote in a published report that in France surimi is “particularly popular in households with children.”

For school lunch, transparent .plastic bags hold surimi sticks with a Tex-Mex mayonnaise or ketchup-based dipping sauce. This is definitely a convenience food. It is fully cooked and pasteurized. It’s low in fat and cholesterol. There are no fish bones, no fish smell, no fish guts. There is the glory of ease of use. But with or without cocktail sauce, surimi “crab” would never, ever, fool a crab lover. There is negligible flavor.

In the United States of America, today, there are 10 surimi seafood manufacturers with 11 plants in five states. Today, more than 60% of surimi seafood is consumed of the East Coast. Still, there is only one surimi seafood plant east of the Mississippi River. At LM Foods, a 72.000-square-foot plant in Carteret, N.J., 80 employees work in two eight-hour shifts to produce 1 million pounds or surimi seafood per month. On a recent afternoon, along the assembly line made up of stainless steel, specialized machinery for the manufacture of surimi seafood , there is a high-speed, monotonous drone. One after another, 22-pound blocks of frozen Alaska pollock are crushed into fist-sized chunks. Oddly, there is only the slightest aroma of fish. “The original smell of the fish is diluted by the other ingredients, like the salt and the sugar,” says LM owner Kisung Bae, who opened this plant in 1996. Into an enormous, saucer-shaped “vacuum cutter” go the chunks of fish along with portions of potato, corn and wheat starch, whey, water, egg whites, mirin rice wine and soybean oil. In goes the crab extract.”

Our customers are always saying ‘put in more flavor.’ says Bae. After 20.minutes the lid of the bulky spiral of steel rises. Inside is 900 pounds of shiny, white, dense creamy paste. At the turn of a switch, off goes the paste through tubes and over a heated drum. A stripe of red food coloring is added before a foot-wide ribbon of gelled paste passes through a steam chamber. Further along, a nifty machine called a “bundler” twists the ribbon onto a continuous roll. A large system of rotary knives gives the gelled fish paste the consistency of flaky crabmeat. Next, the packaging gizmo awaits.

The whole business is enough to make a real crab cry. At Sizzling Express, a New York-style salad bar on McPherson Square in downtown Washington, crab surimi is always available in one form or another. On a recent morning, next to the surimi pasta salad there were California rolls with a center of surimi. “We go through about 20 pounds of it every day so people must like it,” says co-owner on Chio.

But, the reality is, some like it some don’t. “I wouldn’t eat it. It looks too imitation. You can tell by the funny pink color,” says customer Jacqueline Tyson, a computer specialists. “It’s a step down from crabmeat.” she says. “I prefer the real thing.” Along comes Tikinia McPhail, a business administrator for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. On one side of her plate there is a dainty pile of surimi with pasta and on the other side two pieces of California roll. She is not exactly sure what surimi is made with. “It’s some crab and some filler, I think.” She knows by tasting if the surimi is fresh. “Sometimes it’s bland if it’s been sitting out too long. But otherwise it’s sweet.” For McPhail, surimi crab is just right for lunch. “I wouldn’t be eating it this much of it if I didn’t like it.”

(Courtesy Washington Post)

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