Imitation crab is awesome. And at this point, it’s something you can easily get at most grocery stores. It’s a pretty popular ingredient in things like seafood salad (remember Subway’s discontinued version, the Seafood Sensation?), casseroles, and most famously, California rolls, the sushi staple. There are multiple versions of imitation crab, but there’s one brand my family has sworn by for as long as I can remember. I’ll tell you more about it in a minute. But let’s start with the types you commonly see at most grocery stores.
What is imitation crab? Since the name contains the word “imitation,” I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that it has zero crab in it. It is, in fact, mostly made of surimi. Surimi is a paste made from finely ground fish, often Alaskan pollock. (Pollock itself is a versatile fish, and if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve definitely seen it in some form, often fried—most famously as the Filet-O-Fish.) A good bulk of it is also made from wheat starch and egg whites. Its fakeness is not a liability; some people consider it better than real crab.
You’re most likely familiar with this kind of imitation crab. It’s usually grouped with other refrigerated seafood products. Though they’re labeled “flakes,” the individual pieces are more like chunks. There are many brands that produce this style of imitation crabmeat, but I’m going to flat out and say it: I do not like this style very much, if at all. (Sorry to burst your bubble, if you’re a fan.)
In my opinion, the flakes/chunks are always chewy, sometimes gummy or rubbery, and aren’t really useful for much other than the aforementioned seafood salads or casseroles, in which case, let’s be honest, you’re probably not looking for a legit flavor bomb. You’re probably looking for more of a bulky, meaty filler. Every flake-style imitation crab meat I’ve ever had has always had a muted flavor, usually too sweet, and nothing like crab.
I mean, I get it: part of the appeal of flake-style imitation crab is that it’s so inoffensive. It’s a low barrier to entry if you don’t like seafood too much. The manufacturers make an effort to mimic the texture of actual crab; if you take a closer look at my photo, you can see the striations in the crab flake. But in my opinion, this trick doesn’t work since the whole product ends up resembling one big rubber ball.
Fortunately for me, this is not the version I ever ate growing up. We had crab sticks instead. My mom always had one particular brand in the freezer, though I never actually paid attention to which brand it was. I recently texted her to find out. Her answer was one word: “Osaki.”
Don’t pay any attention to the “Fish Cake” label. This is definitely imitation crab. You can find Osaki in the frozen section of Asian grocery stores in the frozen section. Most stores typically have a pretty big selection of imitation crab, and this will likely be pretty overwhelming, but if you can find Osaki, grab it.
I asked my mom why she picked Osaki specifically, and if she’d ever tried any other brands. She said that she’d tried the flake variety from American supermarkets, but she highly preferred the Osaki version because it just tasted so much better to her. I also asked if she’d tried of the other brands at the Korean grocery store, and she said yes, but in terms of flavor, nothing ever could compete with Osaki. Since she did the shopping, this was what we ate.
Crab sticks, as their name implies, come shaped kind of like the meat you might pull out of a giant crab leg. Osaki sticks are all individually wrapped. That way, they aren’t all fused together into one giant lump when you need to use them. Plus, you can also take what you need and put the rest back in the freezer. After you remove the wrapper, you’re going to notice a huge difference from imitation crab flakes, and that’s in the texture.
Crab sticks pull apart in strings and have more of a fibrous quality, kind of like how real snow crab meat pulls apart into tiny strings when it’s shredded.
The texture of crab sticks is way less dense than that of crab flakes. It’s more delicate and is perfect for a California roll, in which quality is less about the meat itself and more about the sum total of sushi ingredients. The sweetness of Osaki crab sticks is balanced by a fat punch of savoriness, thanks to our favorite umami booster, MSG. You may also notice that these crab sticks are actually juicy, which is something the flake style isn’t. That makes Osaki sticks perfect for snacking on.
You can use crab sticks in any other recipe in which you enjoy imitation crab: seafood salad (just note the texture’s going to be more shredded and less chunky than flake), crab rangoon, casseroles, sushi bakes, or pasta.
If you can’t find Osaki brand at the store, my mom says your best bet is to look for imitation crab that has a slightly translucent hue to it, rather than a solid white color. That’s the best indication that the stuff is going to taste good. It can be hard to see in a frozen product, but try your best.
If you don’t trust me, you should at least trust my mother. Next time you’re at your local Asian grocery store, keep an eye out for Osaki imitation crab sticks. You’ll never look back.