How is fish used in Japan


Fish for people who don't really like them?

For the protein product, parts of fish meat are processed that are already produced during processing, cannot be sold as fillet, sashimi or in any other form and would actually be waste. Waste? Sounds more unsavory than it is. Surimi is made from pure muscle meat - so it's about the misshapen corners and scraps that arise when cutting the fillet. Nevertheless, it is precisely this practice that is repeatedly criticized. Processing leftovers has little to do with Japanese surimi. If manufacturers add bones, inferior meat, and skin, it is inferior surimi.

Almost tasteless protein from fish muscle meat

There are many different ways to enjoy fish. Raw, fried, steamed, marinated or cooked - and in Japan also very heavily processed. Contrary to popular belief, surimi does not necessarily consist of waste, but is made from pure muscle protein from fish.

Fish without a head or viscera is used as the raw mass

In the extraction of surimi, the decapitated and gutted fish is processed by a separator. Skin, scales and bones are removed. Then the fish is pressed into a rotating steel drum that has small holes in it. The fish meat fits through the holes, harder parts such as leftover bones do not. The result is a pulp of protein, the muscle fibers and the typical structure of the meat are destroyed. Surimi is not yet.

Separate egg whites

The pulp made of fish meat is then mixed with water and pressed again, in several passes. About 30 liters of water are used for one kilogram of surimi. Carbonate is added to the water in order to degrease the fatty species of fish. And because the meat is not always brilliantly white, hydrogen peroxide is sometimes used to remove the discoloration. The cell water and a large part of the soluble protein as well as the non-protein is squeezed out under pressure. After this step, a solid, odorless and tasteless mass of egg white remains.

Further processing: fresh or frozen?

Raw surimi can be further processed into the finished product. But this is rarely done. Usually the largest part is frozen so that the mass can be transported and stored. However, when frozen, the protein usually denatures. This is prevented by adding sugar, sugar substitutes or polyphosphates. Sometimes chitosan, a component of the shell of crustaceans, is also added. Raw surimi is frozen in blocks of 10 kg or 20 kg and can be kept for up to a year.

Large selection of products made from surimi in Japan

Very different products are made from the frozen blocks. In Germany, on the other hand, surimi is primarily sold as an imitation crab meat (so-called crabsticks). In some supermarkets you can also find imitation (and reshaped) crabs, shrimp, and lobsters. Sometimes the surimi mass is also mixed with the remains of squid and algae extracts, shaped into rings and offered in fried form as a calamari substitute. In terms of chewing feel and appearance, the imitations come relatively close to real seafood.

Historically interesting thing

Surimi was already being made in Japan about 900 years ago: Back then it was a question of housekeeping. Minced fish cooked and jellied with sugar simply lasts longer than raw fish. The word surimi in the spelling す り 身 also only means “ground meat”. Surimi has only played an important role in the food industry since around 1959. Since then, the fresh fish caught is no longer prepared at sea, but with humectants (this can be polydextrose, but also sorbet or polyphosphates), frozen raw and only processed later. In addition, not only directly marketable fish, but also krill are used.

Depending on the use, mixed with other ingredients and colored in taste

Surimi is sometimes mixed with egg white, starch and oil, sugar or salt as well as flavor enhancers, set under heat and flavored and colored. If surimi is sold as imitation crab meat in Germany, it is enriched with crab aroma. The color is achieved by a coating of paprika extract or a red-orange or pink dye. The elongated, finger-thick roll (the so-called crabstick) is also available in Japan. It is used as a filling for maki sushi, and sometimes ends up in noodle stews (udon or ramen). However, in Japan there are also products processed as imitation shrimp, imitation shrimp or imitation octopus.

In Japan, as in Germany, it must be declared what is contained in the food. This is also the case with surimi, so that imitations of deceptively real-looking seafood can also be recognized as such. If you read the information on the packaging carefully. Eating in a restaurant is a little more difficult. Because only ready-made dishes are sold here, not individual ingredients.

Kamaboko - nutritious and sustainable

Kamaboko 蒲 鉾 are a special form of surimi. Kamaboko are often made from the white meat of the Alaskan pollock and are shaped into loaves that are somewhat reminiscent of bread. They are steamed, so they are done and have a tough consistency. Kamaboko can be colored white or pink on the outside, the middle of the loaves is always white. They are delivered on small, thin wooden boards, to which they generally bake slightly when steamed. Cut into thin slices and served chilled with dips or in soups, stews and pasta dishes, they serve as a gentle-tasting source of protein. Red and white kamaboko is particularly popular on festive days because the colors red and white are said to bring good luck. This form of surimi has been produced since the 14th century. A mixture of cheese and kamaboko, called chiikama, serves as a ready-made snack.

Narutomaki, a swirl roll made from surimi and cooked, is visually similar. This protein product is almost always served in slices.

Healthy or not? Food substitutes under criticism

Surimi is usually portrayed negatively in the media as a fake product. That is quite understandable. Because a few years ago there was actually one or the other food scandal. Surimi products were sold as lobster claw meat or shrimp, the ingredients were not adequately labeled. So it wasn't at all clear that it wasn't real seafood but imitations. This was only noticeable when the imitations were viewed and tasted closely. Subsequently, surimi was generally blown up as a fake product, so that the high-quality and healthy products also remain negatively in the memory. Correctly made surimi, without additives and made according to traditional Japanese methods, is harmless to health, nutritious and even tasty. Because these products are not made from waste and inferior leftovers.

Traditionally, high-quality fish fillet is used, primarily from white fish. Pollack, cod, bream and white pike are processed into surimi. The only thing that could be criticized is the strong processing of the fish fillet, which is also very tasty and healthy in its natural form. In terms of sustainability and energy consumption, this is not a good solution. On the other hand, one might argue that surimi has a longer shelf life than raw fish and that the fillets of small fish that are not likely to be sold can also be processed.

Another point of criticism: Often every single stick is packed in a small plastic bag, all sticks are once again shrink-wrapped together in plastic film and the package is packed in a cardboard box, which may be provided with a thin film cover. This type of packaging is not environmentally friendly. And of course it is still damaging to reputation if many manufacturers still process or mix fish scraps of all kinds and waste from the fish industry into surimi.

Better without flavors and colors

Japanese surimi comes in the high-quality version without many additives. If polyphosphates, monosodium glutamate or other glutamates, flavors or azo dyes are listed on the packaging, the product is not of high quality. These admixtures are of little use or even harmful to health. Incidentally, surimi is made as a flat rolled product, one side of which is about five centimeters colored with paprika extract. Only the rolled up and cut sheet is the fibrous end product that is sold as crab sticks.

Protein, unsaturated and poly-saturated fatty acids

Reads like a healthy food, and so is surimi. High-quality proteins and a low fat content promise healthy, light food. However, it contains more fat than pure fish because vegetable oils are often added. But they are not hardened, so that does not harm the product. Good products are recognized by:

  • the high protein content
  • the guarantee that no fish scraps have been used (“100% fish fillet”)
  • the renouncement of artificial flavors
  • the renouncement of flavor enhancers and polyphosphates

Contains fewer nutrients than unprocessed fish

It is clear that a processed food no longer contains as many and as different nutrients as its natural counterpart. Nevertheless, surimi is by no means free from minerals, vitamins and trace elements. Depending on the processing, the following are included:

  • Vitamin E.
  • Folic acid
  • Calcium
  • potassium
  • iodine
  • amino acids

Surimi in the kitchen - diverse and varied

Surimi can be shaped and prepared into all sorts of decorative things. However, it should not be heated strongly, because under heat the consistency and taste change negatively. In Japan, surimi is often eaten “natural”; it is allowed to acclimate for about ten minutes before consumption and develop its aroma at room temperature. It is well suited as a filling for maki or California rolls and as a topping for nigiri sushi. The product is dimensionally stable and can be cut well, so that the preparation of decorative sushi is easy.

Surimi is also well suited in seafood salads, in green salads, as a soup or topping Japanese noodle soups. But here, too, it is important that the product is not cooked, but only added before serving. Ultimately, surimi can also be snacked well with fresh dips based on creme fraiche.

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