You’ve likely seen crab salad on the menus of Japanese restaurants or in the sushi section of the grocery store. It’s a simple dish of surimi (imitation crab) tossed in creamy mayonnaise. Though surimi is nothing like real crab, it’s delicious in its own way and can satisfy a seafood craving without having to shell fresh crab meat, or shell out the big bucks for someone else to pick the meat for you. Cool and refreshing, crab salad—or kani salad, as it’s known in Japan—is perfect for hot summer days when all you want is to toss together an easy meal without turning the stove or oven on.
What Is Surimi?
Surimi is, essentially, a fish sausage that’s used to create fishcakes and imitation crab. It's typically made from a paste of minced fish (often pollock, according to the USDA) that’s been washed and mixed with sugar and sorbitol, a type of sugar that helps maintain surimi's texture even when frozen. Dating back roughly 1000 years, when Japanese fishermen began making fish paste as a way of preserving fresh seafood, surimi is today formed into numerous products, like kamaboko (a seafood cake you’ve probably enjoyed alongside your ramen or udon), chikuwa (a fish cake often included in the Japanese stew oden), and satsuma-age (fried fish cakes), among many more.
When Japanese companies found a way to freeze surimi in the 1960s, they began exporting the ingredient to the United States as crab sticks. Despite the wide range of existing surimi products, the term is still most closely associated with imitation crab in the U.S. Today, surimi is used in sushi rolls and salads in Japanese restaurants, but it’s also used to create other imitation seafood, such as lobster, shrimp, or scallops. With a bouncy and slightly rubbery texture, it’s not difficult to differentiate between surimi and the real deal. Still, it makes a perfectly suitable substitute for fresh seafood when you’re short on time and looking for a budget-friendly alternative.
Key Techniques for Improving Crab Salad
Improve the Dressing With Instant Dashi
That leads us to crab salad. Commonly made from a combination of surimi, mayo, and then optional additional ingredients like cucumber, corn, sesame seeds and more. For this recipe, we were seeking a fairly classic version of the dish, but still were in search of any small touches we could add to boost flavor and complexity.
One of the best additions we found was instant dashi powder, which adds a more seafood-forward flavor along with savory depth. As former Serious Eats editor Sho Spaeth writes, dashi powder “is to dashi what bouillon cubes are to stock, and, in a pinch, it can be a meal-saver.” The powder is used to make dashi, the seaweed-based stock essential to so many Japanese dishes, when you’re pressed for time. Made with MSG, dried bonito powder, salt, sugar, and yeast extract, instant dashi is an umami-packed ingredient that helps the surimi shine, and lends the salad a deep savoriness and light smoky flavor.
Tame the Sweetness With Quick-Pickled Chiles and Tangy Dairy
Crab salad can verge on being too sweet or rich with mayonnaise. To offset that creamy sweetness, we whip up a very quick pickle by soaking a minced serrano chile in rice vinegar for 10 minutes, which helps to draw out its heat while infusing it with a tangy kick that cuts through the mayonnaise.
On top of that, we also blend the mayo with sour cream or crème fraîche, which bring a balanced tartness to the mayo-y base. Enjoyed on its own as a snack or as a side along with a home-cooked dinner, this is a crab salad that comes together quickly but packs more flavor than most store-bought options.
In a medium bowl, stir together chile, vinegar, and salt. Let stand 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place shallot in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under hot water. Drain thoroughly.
Add rinsed shallot, celery, mayonnaise, crème fraîche, cilantro, and dashi powder to vinegar mixture, stirring with a silicone spatula until dashi powder dissolves. Add surimi, and gently toss to combine. Serve immediately.
Fine-mesh sieve, silicone spatula
Surimi is packed with excess liquid that can water log your mayonnaise. Be sure to pat it dry before using.