I know I've had krab, or imitation crab, before. I must have - it's often used in California rolls or in crab dips and the like. But it's not something I really remember tasting.
Crab, on the other hand, I've tasted - and love. When my parents bought crab, it was fresh - so fresh that if you dropped it you'd have to chase it to get it back.
Foodgoat doesn't quite that fresh, and I'm not even sure we can really get that level of crabbiness here in Cleveland. But we do often buy excellent, freshly made crabcakes from the West Side Market and the occasional can of crabmeat.
Alas, that can can come in at upwards of $25 a pound. Imitation crab, we noticed, rang up at $11. Would it be worth it? It was time to find out.
Imitation crab is actually made from fish - specifically, surimi, which white fish meat that is ground into a paste and becomes gelatinous and rubbery when cooked. Usually that fish is Alaskan or walleye pollack, a very mild tasting, plentiful fish (it's certified as a sustainable fish, so you can eat it with confidence that you're not draining the oceans of life). Surimi has been made for over 800 years in Japan (it's also used to make fish balls and other types of processed fish products), but imitation crab meat was introduced in the United States in the early 1980s.
To turn surimi paste into something crab-like in texture, they add starch (usually wheat or tapioca, for firmness), sugar (for preservation), and egg whites and vegetable oil (for cohesion and shininess). To give it a crab-like flavor, they add both natural (from actual crabs) or artificial (from New Jersey) flavorings. Add a little food coloring to give it a crab-like pinkishness, and all the ingredients are in.
This paste is formed into smooth sheets, which are then cut into strands that are rolled into a rope, and steamed cooked - and in the end, it looks a lot like crab (and, some say, like string cheese).We initially got the krab for California rolls, but ended up making a crab salad instead. Texture-wise, it was awfully rubbery, rather than meaty. Taste-wise, well, I really wouldn't mistake it for real crab in blind taste test.
However, it wasn't bad - - it was mild and vaguely crabby and generally inoffensive. It just wasn't really much like crab.
But, imitation crab is quite popular and lot of people genuinely like it. I think I would be more enthusiastic about it if it didn't pretend to be crab. If we just called it fish fillets or ground pollock or something, I feel like it could stand pretty well on its own. Obviously, it does all right in California rolls, mixed with avocado and rice and wasabi. It would probably do excellently in a creamy seafood dip or a mixed seafood cassarole.
But as a straight up crab substitute? In recipes in which crab is central to the flavor? Not so much. In recipes where the crab is central to the texture (like crab cakes or crab salad)? Really not so much.