KC 176 - The Saga of Surimi

KC 176 - The Saga of Surimi

Why hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Castastrophe. Today’s topic goes by many names, most of them kind of wrong: surimi, narutomaki, and, for those of us who don’t speak Japanese: Imitation Crab. Yes, today, Jon, with the help of his inestimable amigo and sworn nemesis Nathan, make Imitation Crab. Why? How? Will the stains ever truly leave us? These questions and more will be answered. But for those of you naturally incurious, the link to the recipES is here. (oh ho, multiple recipes? What could they be? Well, you won’t know if you click the link! (Well, you WILL know, and faster than those who don’t. Look, it’s California Rolls. Nate and I made imitation crab and sushi. BUT YOU WON’T KNOW THE ANSWERS TO THE OTHER QUESTIONS.))

Good good, opening paragraph has a double-parenthetical freak-out. Noice noice noice. (I’ve been watching a lot of Brooklyn 99 of late, and I drank a bit, so forgive my Peralta-ing. (Though, let’s be clear, I’m really more of a Boyle.))

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Kinda lame, not physically impressive, well-informed about food, tons of cousins…

Moving right along!


Marine’s Marriage Mars Marine Mooring, Marking Margins with Margarine

For those of you who assumed section titles were meant to make my topics CLEARER, let this serve as damning evidence of your inaccuracy. I use these titles for Alliteration, Bad Puns, and Creferences. Which are just references, but I really wanted a C there. Anyway, this is the reason to WHY we made imitation Crab meat today: It’s Marine Day! Also called Ocean Day or Sea Day, Marine Day is a Japanese national holiday honoring the ocean, its importance to Japan, and the bounty it provides. Which is probably why its Wikipedia page out of nowhere ordered people to eat fish when I checked it just a few minutes ago.

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I found that out about 2 weeks ago, and thought “oh, cool, that’s something I can definitely use”. (The “it’s a national holiday in Japan today” thing, not the Wikipedia typo. That’s new.) AS I’ve mentioned before, my family, and the site, is no stranger to weeaboo business. Also it gave me an excuse to throw something more delicate in between my posts about Burgers and Ribs and so on. Which, due to emergencies and scheduling mishaps, I didn’t end up posting, so…whoops. Which led me on an intricate quest: What can I find for Ocean day that’s not TOO Ocean-y?

As we’ve covered before on the site, I don’t particularly like seafood. I can eat Tuna fish sandwiches, fried white fish (for like, Fish fingers or fish and chips), smoked salmon…  I guess like, fried calamari…crab and lobster’s okay. Mussels and clams aren’t GOOD, but I can eat them…Look, the problem used to be a lot worse, okay? This is YEARS of progress. I used to gag trying to chew raw Tuna. I DID gag just last year trying a poke bowl! The point is that if you took me to a seafood restaurant, I would take it as a minor personal slight. AND WOULD SEEK REVENGE. By like, praising a mutual acquaintance you don’t like, getting a song stuck in your head, or offering you a slightly wrong drink. Like, my friend Katie drinks Malibus and Diet Coke, and she’d definitely get like, a Spiced Rum and normal Coke. I’ve lost my train of thought. I guess you could say I’m…AT SEA!

Dumb jokes aside, I was thinking about what we could do, and I remembered that I had been interested in making Naruto. Not the now-completed Anime series, or its progenitor Manga. But rather the spiral-marked fish cake slices served in bowls of ramen.

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Seen here with a big close-up on what, if I know my ramen broths by sight as a true Boyle would, is either a miso or tonkatsu-based bowl of ramen. I’m leaning miso, as Tonkatsu in my experience is a little paler, but that could be the lighting.

These fish cakes are in fact the reason Naruto is named Naruto: they’re narutomaki, or naruto for short. The kid’s name is basically the Japanese equivalent of calling your kid “Hot Dog”. They THEMSELVES are named after whirlpools in a strait between two of the islands of Japan, which is why they have the spiral design in them. These are a form of surimi, which broadly means “Ground meat”, typically referring to fish meat that has been reduced to a paste, with added flavors and potentially binders or coloring agents, in order to form various dishes. This is a rich and complicated arena of Japanese cuisine we DO NOT have time to cover, because I spent so long rambling about avenging seafood slights. The IMPORTANT thing is the specific varieties of Narutomaki and “Crab Sticks”.

Yes, as mentioned, this dish is the core of what we in America call “Imitation Crab”. The process is simple: crab is expensive. Fish are not. They can also be harvested more sustainably. So if you can make fish taste like crab…Hey, look, we can make cheap “crab” meat for people who can’t normally afford it! Humorously, in Japan, it’s eaten so widely that some varieties actually USE CRAB to make it. They add crab to the thing they eat because crab costs too much, in order to make it swankier and more expensive. Which is clearly a ludicrous thing to do. And because I’LL BE THE LUDICROUS ONE HERE, I topped them by adding Lobster to mine. EAT A DUCK, JAPAN.  (…how the hell did I auto-correct myself…ON MY COMPUTER?)

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I also dropped the damn lobster goop.

So, yeah. I thought it was a cool little idea for Ocean Day (which I prefer over “Marine Day”): It’s seafood, made to look/taste like OTHER seafood, NAMED (at least in one iteration) after a part of the SEA. And on TOP of all that, it’s something I can easily eat, and it’s pretty fucking easy to boot! So let’s talk about how this whole process was easy as pie!


No Need to Get Steamed Up

This process…you know, it wasn’t AS BAD as I feared it would be, but it did take some time, some frustration, and it went a little wonky. Which is amazing, because as I told Nate time and again to sell this dish to him, it’s a three-step process: Blend some fish and shit, roll it into a pretty design, and steam it. Start to finish, 30 minutes. And…sure, that was KIND of right.

The first way that things went wrong is we immediately changed goals: despite me using them interchangeably earlier, Imitation Crab and Narutomaki aren’t interchangeable. Because they are colored differently, and Imitation Crab typically has a little extra crab flavor added. Other than that, yeah, they’re basically interchangeable.

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On a surface levels, there’s not a lot of distinction between various formed cakes of fish paste. This isn’t even the same type as EITHER of them.

Now, because I myself don’t… “plan” things like a reasonable person would, I didn’t actually have a GOAL with the imitation crab I was making. I was just going to make it, try it, and move on with my day, maybe figure out something to do with it in a week or two. (Side note: I have no idea if this is a healthy plan. I don’t know how long this keeps in the fridge…I’ve just looked it up, about a week, apparently. So not the WORST plan, but not a great one either.) In an effort to actually get a usable meal out of the process, we ended up deciding to make California rolls. (Which, depending on who you believe, was invented in either one of two places in Los Angeles, OR in Canada. And, interestingly, didn’t actually use imitation crab in the early conception.)

So we were going to make narutomaki AND imitation crab. Which lead to us buying more white fish than the recipe called for.

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This, for instance, is the SMALLER chunk of it. But it looked better, so I took this picture.

We used pacific Cod, because it’s what our local fishmonger (by which I mean “upper-scale grocery store”) had for relatively cheap. As such, we had to change all our measurements around on the fly, which was ALREADY a bit of a problem, since the source I had was European, and measured in Grams, so we had to measure by re-using our handy little kitchen scale, which, if you’ve never had to weigh a gram, let me tell you, is nerve-wracking. Supposedly 4 grams is a teaspoon, but shaking it out, it’s a very different experience.

Anyway, the recipe is easy: for 200 grams of fish, get 6 grams sugar, 6 grams salt, and 6 grams mirin.

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All these fishes be ‘mirin. Which is a joke I’ve used before, and will likely use again.

Mirin’s a sweet, sticky rice wine used in East Asian cooking (it’s what you mix with Soy sauce and sake to make Teriyaki) and it’s used here to help cure the fish: it’s legitimately alcoholic, so mixing it in with salt and sugar is going to mess around with the proteins involved.

You also want to blend in an egg white to help emulsify and join together the blended fish into a smooth paste. Trust me on this, I heard about this one guy who blended his fish and stuff for like, 2 whole minutes, wondering why it wasn’t turning to paste, before remembering the egg white and fixing the whole thing in like, 30 seconds of blending.

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Once you’ve got your stuff blended, I recommend you choose your path wisely. Nate and I, as the trailblazer, forged in two different directions with ultimately mostly successful results, but a fair amount of irritation.

If you’re making narutomaki, you’re going to need two colors of fish paste. So split your paste into two batches, and stir in some red food coloring. If you NEED to go fully hippy on me, beet juice is acceptable, but If it tastes weird and too sweet, that’s on you, Eliza. I used red food coloring, because I was already making home-made fish cake, I don’t need to prove anything to you.

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Nate and I joked that multiple parts of this process look like other foods: fresh out of the blender, the fish paste looks like mashed potatoes. Here, it looks like Christmas cookies.

Once you’ve got that, you need to get a rolling system. We, being weebs, have a sushi rolling mat or makisu (which actually names the type of sushi made using it. Sushi rolls are makizushi, or “Maki rolls”.) which I kept calling tatami, which is a mildly funny mix-up to those who speak Japanese, and irritating to explain to those who don’t. (Tatami are floor/sitting mats in Japanese homes.  It’d be like saying to dice up food on a wooden “ironing board” and not noticing.) If you don’t have one and don’t want to get one, you can use a clean kitchen towel or even straight-up just plastic wrap to do the same effect. (we used plastic wrap on the sushi mat, for control, sanitation, and easy release.

But you gotta get that swirl, which means you’ve gotta slather on the pasty white…paste (damn my pre-emptive adjective) straight on the rolling surface, and then a second layer of the red paste on top. An act I THOUGHT I took a picture of, but it turns out I was wrong. So now we’re all feeling let-down.

Now, Nate’s involvement was key here. I mostly took the task of “guy who knows the numbers, and is taking pictures”, while Nate served as the true sushi chef, donning his variation of the traditional headband and rolling his fish balls with the focus of a true master.

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The lack of apron was presumptuous, but such is the pride of the master.

 So when I say that our roll could have gone better, it’s Nate’s fault. (Which, to be fair, it was his first time rolling a fish-paste concoction, I’m sure he’ll improve with time.) Also, being novices, we didn’t really know HOW to execute the direction. “Roll tightly, ensuring there are no air bubbles”? How do you know IF there’s an air bubble? The point is we had rolled up fish paste, and after 15 minutes in the steamer we had…well, we had something quite visually interesting.

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Some would call it “a striking kind of visual horror”, but that’s a strong reaction.

I immediately blamed it on not ensuring we didn’t have air pockets. And also, it was probably a little thick and lacking in structural integrity. Despite the questionable look (and the sad attempt at a spiral inside, it actually TASTED pretty close to right. A little too salty, according to my mother, but, as a guy who doesn’t eat a lot of seafood, if you had given me some of that and told me it was imitation crab, I’d have believed you. Hell, I might have believed it was legitimately crab.

Nate, furious at himself for so shaming our family, left to his room to cut off his left pinky and learn how to make California rolls, since I had started cooking sushi rice and slicing veggies while the Narutomaki steamed. With him gone, I took our remaining third of the fish paste, and added to it 1 tsp of lobster bouillon, apparently a real thing you can buy at the store. (which you already know, since I had a picture of it earlier on. It was the thing on the floor you couldn’t see any details of.) I mashed the paste to incorporate the lobster, and rolled it out thin. Then I popped it in our still-going steamer, and popped onto the couch to sit for 10 minutes.

This mixture came out…remarkably better.

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At least it didn’t hatch like a xenomorph egg.

The faintly brown color, the taste, this actually LOOKED like cooked crab meat. Not just the pretty leg meat, but the body meat as well. It was still a little salty, but my mother openly noted that “you can get real crab that tastes like that.”

I’m going to mostly breeze over how you make a California roll, since, as the title notes, this was more about the fish paste, and it’s actually pretty boring: You cut avocado and cucumber into matchsticks (so longer, thin batons, kinda like McDonald’s French Fries), cut the imitation crab meat, cook sushi rice (which is just short-grain rice with a vinegar-based seasoning tossed on it: we just bought a bottle of it) and grab some nori. Put down the nori, pat on and spread out the rice, then flip it over so the nori’s on top (In Japan, most Maki rolls have the nori on the outside, but supposedly Americans kept peeling the seaweed off, so they invented “inside out” sushi (uramaki), to force us to eat the seaweed.) put the batons of crab, avocado and cucumber along the roll, and…well, roll it.

The three big tips we’ll give are

A: let your rice cool down some before handling it,

B: Grease the gloves you use to roll the rice (or wet your hands, if going au natural)

And C: sharpen your knife.

Because the first time Nate tried to make the roll, it came out as it is on the left. And the SECOND time, we followed the above steps, and it came out like it is on the RIGHT.

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And this is the FLATTERING pic of the first attempt: half of it just like, collapsed as he tried to cut it.

After this moderate success (made more glorious that he had staunched the bleeding of his severed pinky, and was therefore working on a handicap), Nate decided he was done rolling sushi, and made “Deconstructed California Roll Bowls”, because “deconstructed” is fancy restaurant talk for “here are all the ingredients for X, we just didn’t feel like putting them together correctly.”

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“We spent long enough at culinary school making these, here they are messed up so we can entertain ourselves.”

Nate’s new haute cuisine of the marine invented, I added to the meal with previously procured sake juiceboxes!

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I’m sure there are places in Japan that charge a pretty penny for this kind of weird meal experience.

So after about an hour of effort, we had cakes, rolls and bowls made of rice, “crab”, seaweed and veggies. Which was a great way for us to celebrate the sea on this Marine Day!

If you wanted, you could try mixing other flavorings into the fish paste, or different colors (if you wanted your narutomaki to have a blue spiral, for instance), and while we used Cod, you can also use Pollock or Tilapia, so you can make it even more cheaply than we did. Expect to see the naruto in SOMETHING soon, but we don’t know what.

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here's the


Narutomaki/Imitation Crab Base (Simple Surimi)

Serves 1 per batch, can be doubled or tripled.



100 grams white fish such as cod, tilapia, or Pollock

3 grams sugar

3 grams salt

3 grams mirin

Half an egg white



  1. If necessary, skin fish, and trim of any notable fat. You may also rinse to remove any fishy orders, if desired (if rinsed, remove excess water before blending)

  2. Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend into a homogenous paste.  Proceed to Narutomaki or Imitation crab recipe



Take 2 batches prepared fish paste, and mix one batch with red food coloring until thoroughly colored.

Taking the non-colored patch, spread on prepared rolling surface (preferably lined with plastic wrap) to a roughly 8” by 5” rectangle. Top with reddened paste, spreading to cover all but 1 centimeter perimeter on the near and far side of the rectangle.

Roll tightly, avoiding air pockets (however you do that) and steam for 15 minutes. (I recommend placing parchment paper under the fish in the steamer, or it will press into the slats and have to be scrubbed free later.)


Imitation crab

Add 1 tsp crab or lobster bouillon, and thoroughly mix into paste. Roll into a thin log, and steam 10-12 minutes.


California rolls


1.5 cups dry sushi rice

2 cups water

4 tablespoons sushi rice seasoning

1 batch Imitation crab

1 quarter English or hothouse cucumber (the variety whose skin you can eat)

1 half avocado

3 sheets of nori

Soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger for serving.


  1. Rinse the sushi rice until water runs clear. Add to a saucepan with water, bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, simmering for 20 minutes.

  2. When rice is done, fluff with a fork, ensuring you pry rice from sides and bottom of the pot. Add the sushi rice seasoning and mix thoroughly. Spread rice onto a baking sheet to cool.

  3. While rice cools, cut crab, cucumber, and avocado into batons.

  4.   Assemble rolls by spreading rice onto Nori sheets, thoroughly covering. Flip onto rolling surface, assemble a line of cucumber, avocado, and crab, and roll closed.

  5.    Cut into 6 “rolls” and serve.


Deconstructed California Bowl

Take ingredients of California Rolls, above, and assemble by mixing torn nori and prepared sushi rice as the base of the bowl, then top with slices of imitation crab, avocado, and cucumber. Sprinkle with soy sauce and serve.