If you've ordered a seafood sandwich lately and found it's priced much lower than usual, chances are you've eaten surimi, the look-alike, taste-alike for crabmeat, shrimp, scallops, or lobster. The result of a new technology that turns low-value fish into a delicious, inexpensive food, it's the fastest-growing fish product in the United States today.
Last year Japan exported 34.7 million pounds of surimi and surimi products to the US in the first seven months of the year, compared with 12.3 million pounds in the same period in l983. This year, according to the National Fisheries Institute's estimates, imports of surimi will reach 50 million pounds.
Surimi is called a substitute, an analog, or most often, an imitation, but it is actually a minced white fish, usually pollock, which has a lower price tag than the real thing. Surimi is a booming business, but until last year it hasn't been an American business. About 90 percent of it comes from Japan, made from pollock caught in US fishing zones to which the Japanese have access.
For the last couple of years surimi has been served in restaurants across the country, in seafood salads, sandwiches, newburgs, chowders, and other dishes.
Now it's in supermarkets in the form of sticks, added to packages of shredded crab, shrimp, or circles of scallops.
``The most important ingredient in a seafood substitute is freshness,'' says Steve Forman, Community Sales, Framingham, Mass.
``These are manufactured products and moisture and freshness will make a difference in quality.
``The overwhelming success so far is the crabmeat. Lobster seems to taste more like crab than lobster,'' and scallops don't come up to the quality of the crab.
What is surimi like? Critics and tasters vary in opinions. Some say the taste of the fish is too sweet, it's too chewy, and it rates low on the flavor scale. Others say it's impossible to tell surimi from the real thing. It even flakes better than real crab, they say.
How do you cook this wonder product? Exactly the same way you'd prepare and serve the food it emulates. Recipes don't need to be altered, nor is special handling necessary. Best of all, there are no bones.
Surimi is called by different names -- fish paste, fish loaf, fish sausage -- though none are completely accurate.
Surimi, which the Japanese were using 600 years ago to make fish delicacies, was first exported from Japan after World War I, intended for the Japanese-American community in the US. Importers saw the skyrocketing cost of crabmeat and soon decided the market could be expanded to a wider consumer market.
Now, although the Japanese have kept secret their processing techniques, US fisheries are beginning to make their own surimi.
In Kodiak, Alaska, Pacific Seafoods has opened the first full-scale commercial size surimi plant in the US.
``In New England we're testing the suitability of red hake and whiting for surimi, trying to find out if it can be fished in volume and get a fair return for the fishermen,'' says John Stockton of the New England Fisheries Development Commission.
In Bayou La Batre, Ala., Billy Thrush at Polytech Seafoods is using croaker, a warm-water fish, to make his own surimi for shrimp products.
``The possibilities are unlimited,'' says Paul McCarthy of Pleasure Isle, Tampa, Fla., who processes a breaded shrimp product made with surimi and natural shrimp flavorings. He is also developing scallop, lobster, and smoked salmon products.
Like the soybean, surimi is a useful protein source and can be shaped to look like almost any other food from whipped cream to potato chips by the same technology used in making spaghetti noodles or chicken nuggets for soup.
Soon we may be eating not only crab- and lobster-flavored surimi but surimi ``pork chops'' and ``filet mignon.'' According to one industry optimist, ``We won't have to hope nature gives us a tender piece of steak; we will be making one every time.''