Kanikama is the Japanese name for imitation crab, which is processed fish meat, and sometimes called crab sticks or ocean sticks. It’s a popular ingredient commonly found in California sushi rolls, crab cakes, and crab rangoons.
What is Kanikama (imitation crab)?
You’ve probably eaten kanikama – even if you didn’t realize it. It’s the sticks of fake crab meat that’s often used in the popular California roll. Also called imitation crab, kanikama is used as a crab substitute and made from surimi, which is a fish paste. The fish is first deboned and minced to make a paste, then it’s flavored, colored and reformed into flakes, sticks or other shapes.
Kanikama usually contains no crab, except a tiny amount of crab extract to create the flavor. Pollock is the most popular fish that’s used to make surimi. The history goes back to 1974 when a Japanese company Sugiyo first produced and patented imitation crab meat.
What does kanikama taste like?
Kanikama is formulated to have a similar flavor and texture to real cooked crab. It’s mild with slightly sweet flavor and low in fat.
Both kanikama and real crab have the same level of calories, about 80-82 calories in one serving (3oz). However, 61% of kanikama calories come from carbs, where 85% of king crab calories come from protein, making real crab a better option for a low-carb or keto diet.
Compared to real crab, kanikama also has lower nutrients such as protein, omega-3 fats, vitamin, zinc and selenium. Although imitation crab is low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol, it’s viewed as a less healthy option than the real crab.
What is Kanikama made of?
The main ingredient in kanikama is the fish paste surimi, which is often made from inexpensive whitefish (such as Alaskan pollock) with fillers and flavorings like starch, sugar, egg whites, and crab flavoring. Red food coloring is also used to mimic the look of real crab.
In the US, you can find kanikama in the refrigerated or frozen section at local Japanese or Asian grocery stores. Alternatively, you can order them online from amazon.
Types of imitation crab
Kanikama or imitation crab is precooked, and you can use it straight from the package. There are several types based on the shape:
- Crab sticks – the most common shape. It’s a “crab leg style” kanikama which looks like sticks or sausages. The outside edges are tinted red to resemble crab. Imitation crab sticks are usually used in California sushi roll or sandwich wraps.
- Shredded – usually used in crab cakes, salad or fish tacos.
- Flake-style or chunks – are used in stir fries, chowders, quesadillas or pizza topping.
Kanikama tastes best when it’s not further cooked, as heating it too much destroys the taste and texture. One of the most popular uses is as the filling in California sushi rolls (see the photo below). It can also be used in nigiri sushi. However, it can still be used as an ingredient in cooked dishes and I recommend adding it in the final stage to minimize the cooking process.
Frequently asked questions:
Is kanikama raw?
No, kanikma is the fish mixture formed into shapes, and then cooked by steam, which also pasteurizes them. It’s sold fully cooked, and can be served as is or used in sushi.
Is kanikama bad for you?
Kanikama is a highly processed food which is less nutritious with some questionable additives. As the imitation crab is much cheaper, it’s an alternative when you don’t have budget for real crab when you’re making a meal for a special occasion. However, it’s best to minimize your intake of processed food as it’s hard to know exactly what binding ingredients are used.
Is kanikama gluten-free?
No. As wheat starch is often used in the paste, kanikama is not gluten-free.
How to store it?
Vacuum-sealed kanikama that’s pasteurized can last for up to 2 months in the refrigerator. Once opened, you need to use it within 3 days. You can also store it in the freezer and it can last for up to 6 months.
Some popular recipes using kanikama:
- California Roll
- Crab Sticks Cabbage Wraps
- Kanikama Sushi
- Imitation Crab Salad
Kanikama Sushi (Nigiri)
For Sushi Rice
- 1 cup sushi rice short grain sushi rice
- 1 cup water
- 1 ½ tablespoons optional sushi vinegar or mixing 1 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt
For Kanikama Sushi
- 8 kanikama sticks
- 1 sheet nori seaweed
- Cook sushi rice: Wash the rice and add it to the rice cooker together with water. Once cooked, transfer to a large bowl and let it cool down slightly. When it’s still very warm, stir in the sushi vinegar (or the mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt).
- Shape the rice: Take 3/4 handful cooked rice and shape it to a long oval form (about 1 ½ inches). Squeeze the rice gently and flatten the bottom. (You can dip your hands in vinegar water to prevent sticking.)
- Cut the kanikama sticks: Cut each stick into smaller pieces (about 2 inches).
- Make the nigiri: Place the kanikama piece on the rice, and then press it firmly to stick onto the rice. You can use one hand to hold the nigiri sushi, and use the hand hand to press. (Optional: you can use a small portion of wasabi to “glue” the crab stick to the rice for a more steady nigiri sushi.)
- Cut the seaweed into 1/4- inch strips and wrap each strip around the width of the nigiri to secure the crab stick to the rice.
- Place the assembled nigiri on the plate. Serve and enjoy!