Imitation meat or innovation meat?

Karen Hung • December 1, 2018

Imitation meat or innovation meat? cover image

You walk into a sushi restaurant and order a California roll. While you appreciate the freshness of the cucumber, you also are delighted with the touch of umami from the crab stick. But is crab stick crab? Here is the truth: even though we call it crab stick, it contains no crab at all. It is also known as surimi, which means “ground meat” in Japanese. It is in fact a mixture of various ground fish shaped into a snow crab leg. It was first manufactured and patented by a Japanese company Osaki Suisan in 1975. At that time Osaki Suisan had a product which was made by stuffing crab meat and fish paste into a gutted cucumber.

The owner, Katsuichi checked the nozzle of the machine and realised the taste of the remaining crab juice with fish was exactly like that of crab. He started thinking of ways to make this into a new product. He added red colouring and lined the small paste threads into a thicker stick, and ta-da, the first crab stick was born!

It was manufactured to imitate the expensive crab with low-priced fish. But now if you go through your Facebook friend list, you would probably find many of your friends having the crab stick before having their first bite of the actual crab meat. The imitation now stands as a distinctive product on its own, having a characteristic taste and mouthfeel, and easiness. That is why some people refer it as the seafood version of hotdogs or spam.

At the Good Food Conference 2018, many scientists and entrepreneurs agreed that at this stage the focus is to resemble the taste and mouthfeel of the conventional meat. The rest of them think we can have a product with its own distinctive taste, texture and mouthfeel. Crab stick started as a substitute before maturing into a new separate product. Some manufacturers refer to them as seafood stick instead of crab. Is this a possible direction for lab-grown food as well?