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Kani Salad (Japanese Imitation Crab Salad)

Cool and refreshing, imitation 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.

Overhead view of plated crab salad
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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. 

Mixing imitation crab with mayo
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Overhead view of chiles in vingear
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

Meanwhile, place shallot in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under hot water. Drain thoroughly.

Overhead view of draining onions
Serious Eats / Robby Lozano

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.

Two image collage of mayo mixture and crab being added to it
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Fine-mesh sieve, silicone spatula

Notes

Surimi is packed with excess liquid that can water log your mayonnaise. Be sure to pat it dry before using.

Italian-American Pasta Salad

For a stellar pasta salad, skip the vinaigrette and opt for punchy, briny ingredients like capers and olives.

Overhead view of a Italian pasta salad
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

My parents’ pasta salad was a feature at almost every cookout, picnic, and potluck of my childhood. Made with a bottle of Wish-Bone Italian dressing, the salad was filled with soggy rotini, a-touch-too-large hunks of salami and mozzarella, and canned black olives. While I have a nostalgic soft spot for it, the cook in me knows that it and many other pasta salads have some fatal flaws: They're usually served at the wrong temperature, the pasta is frequently too soft or too hard, and, more often than not, the whole shebang is tossed in an unpleasant, acerbic dressing. (Daniel certainly has some feelings about it.)

Overhead close up of italian pasta salad

Pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad, though—it’s possible to make a spectacular one that’s full of flavor and texture. With careful consideration of technique, I went back at the pasta salad of my childhood, seeking ways to resolve its worst qualities and turn it into something even a pasta-salad skeptic would love. The following rules are what I've found to be essential to an excellent Italian-American pasta salad.

Rule 1: Overcook—Yes, Overcook—Your Pasta

As Daniel has written previously, cooked pasta goes through retrogradation as it cools, where “the starch molecules reform into a more solid crystalline structure,” effectively going through the same staling process bread does. Overcooking your pasta by just two to three minutes means it’ll be just soft enough without being mushy, and as the pasta cools, it will firm up to become al dente once again.

Rule 2: Add the Acid—But Skip the Vinaigrette

Let’s be real: Nobody wants a pasta salad that’s too tart and oily from a vinaigrette. The solution is to skip the vinaigrette entirely by deconstructing it into more thoughtful and flavor-packed components, some with bright, punchy tartness and others that are rich and savory.

Overhead view of tomatoes and onions in a bowl
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Here, I make a quick pickle of sorts by marinating juicy tomatoes and roasted red pepper in a mixture of lemon juice and red wine vinegar. I supplement these bright and fruity elements with pickled banana peppers, briny olives, and salty-tart capers. When mixed in with the pasta, they add just enough acidity and brightness without overpowering the dish.

I then dress the salad with a rich and flavorful oil made by crisping salami in olive oil. The rendered fat from crisped-up salami tames the tang and lends a deep savory flavor that balances the sweetness of the tomatoes and roasted red peppers.

Rule 3: Room Temperature Is the Right Temperature

While we generally don’t recommend having your food sit out at room temperature for extended periods of time (more than two hours and the risk of food-borne illness becomes more significant), you really do want to allow the pasta salad to come to room temperature before digging in. Cold pasta has muted flavors and a firm, rubbery texture, making each bite an unpleasant one.

Rule 4: Respect the Mozz

It's easy to grab a tub of bocconcini and toss those little mozzarella balls into a pasta salad, but it's not the best way to incorporate the cheese. Due to their small size and the fact that they've often spent some time in the refrigerator case, bocconcini tend to be firm and bouncy, with a slick exterior that refuses to interact with the salad around it.

Mozzarella added to bowl with pasta salad
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Much better is to buy a ball of high-quality, fresh mozzarella, the kind that's tender and weeps drops of sweet milk when you cut into it. But don't cut into it! Instead, tear the mozzarella into shreds, creating a textured surface that will mingle with the oil and juices in the pasta salad, picking them up for each bite. And, because it's a good fresh mozzarella that's still soft, you won't have that unfortunate little-rubber-balls effect of store-bought bocconcini.

The lesson here is that Italian-American–style pasta salad has a lot going for it—if you take the time to give it the attention to detail it deserves.

Working directly over the flame of a gas burner or under a broiler, cook the red bell peppers, turning occasionally, until deeply charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic, and let stand 5 minutes. Place in a medium bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Peel charred skin from bell peppers; discard skin and seeds. Slice peppers into 1/4-inch strips.

Two image collage of blistered red peppers in a bowl and removing the char from them
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

In a large bowl, stir together tomatoes, shallot, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, crushed red pepper, and 2 teaspoons (6g) salt. Marinate, uncovered, at room temperature for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently smashing some of the tomatoes using the back of a wooden spoon. Stir in sliced red bell peppers and 1/4 cup of oil; set aside.

Overhead view of tomatoes and onions in a glass bowl

Bring water to a boil in a 6- to 8-quart pot set over high heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons (18g) salt and return to a vigorous boil over high. Add pasta, and cook for 2 minutes longer than the package directions for al dente, until pasta is tender.

Overhead view of pasta in a collander
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

While the pasta cooks, heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and 3 ounces (85g) salami; cook, stirring often, until garlic is light golden and salami starts to crisp along edges, 4 to 6 minutes; stir into tomato mixture.

Two image collage of meat and garlic cooking in a pan and tomato-pepper mixture added to it
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Drain pasta in a colander. Add pasta, banana peppers, olives, capers, and remaining 3 ounces salami to tomato mixture, stirring to combine. Let stand, uncovered, at room temperature, until flavors meld, about 30 minutes. Stir in mozzarella and basil.

Four image collage of adding all ingredients to a pasta
Serious Eats / Greg Dupree

Special Equipment

Tongs, 6- to 8-quart pot, nonstick skillet, colander

Make-Ahead and Storage

Store in an air-tight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 day. Stir and allow salad to come to room temperature before serving.