What’s Wrong with California Rolls

Let’s start with some background to get our terms straight. Kani, or crabstick, used to be called kamaboko (蒲鉾:, or かまぼこ), which translates literally as “reed pike” (“vine fish”) and roughly as “fishcake.” This website says the term “was ruled out because it didn’t compose of any actual crab” [sic]. Grammar aside, that isn’t to the point because the term does not imply crab. The Japanese word for “crab cake” is クラブケーキ, but that’s just a Japanization of the English term (“koo-RAH-boo-kāā-key”). Taking 蒲鉾 as a model would give us 蒲カニ, kamakani. That would be a term implying actual crab. So kamaboko appears to have grown somewhat archaic, and maybe the slicker term kani was promoted for marketing purposes. In Japan, they use the word surimi (擂り身 or すり身) in addition to kani.

But enough with the lingo, what’s so bad about this reed-pike-cake stuff? Where to begin… First, it’s fake. Not just for being crabless — it’s cured whitefish, typically Alaska or walleye pollock (or blue whiting, or croaker…), made to look like snow-crab legs. Who wants that? If real snow-crab legs are too hard to come by, out of season, too much trouble to pick apart, or too dear, we have options: we can wait a while for the real thing, buy it already picked or pinch our pennies. The notion that I’d prefer fake food made to look somewhat like another kind of fish is bizarre, in a uniquely Japanese way. We want real crab.

Second, real crab meat contains no carbs — zero. Three ounces of kani contains 13 grams of carbs, or about as much as 15 potato chips. Not everyone cares about carbs, but that’s a big difference, especially when it comes rolled in rice. It’s so carb-heavy because they have to add cryoprotectants containing sucrose, starch and other ingredients to the fish-protein base in order to preserve it frozen, so that when thawed the myofibrillar proteins can reconstitute as a gel. Yum, not. We want real crab.

Third, it doesn’t taste good. This fact alone should be the category killer here. Kani tastes exactly like what it is: bland whitefish artificially flavored with crab-like seasoning (which itself consists of monosodium glutamate, vegetable proteins, mirin, and other artificial and processed ingredients). Its texture is nothing like fresh crab meat, or even like the canned or bulk stuff. And that’s before they add the artificial colorants. We want real crab!

Fourth, it’s not just processed, it’s heavily processed. That’s one of the reasons this painted fish has that synthetic, gelatinous texture. Real crab never has such a texture, even out of a can. Because it’s not a fake, processed, painted, frozen gel product. #WeWantRealCrab.

Fifth, California Rolls are often the default sushi offering in restaurants in the U.S. (and elsewhere) when you order, for example, a bento box, Sushi or Sashimi Lunch Combo, or other entree that comes with a sushi roll on the side. California Rolls are like the side salad of the sushi world. In this manner, kani works its nefarious way into all sorts of menu offerings. Try asking to substitute any other roll — even one available à la carte at the same price point as the California Roll — with your order, and good luck with that. We want real crab but if we can’t have it, at least bump the default kani-based roll for a Spicy Salmon, say. (The restaurant’s margins shouldn’t really be all that different for such a substitution.)

Sixth, kani is so ubiquitous that it actually blackwashes real crab, by which we mean that menu descriptions often claim a dish contains crab but fail to specify that it’s really crabstick. So even when they do offer the real deal, you can’t be sure without confirming it specifically.

Finally, we’re not saying kani shouldn’t exist. If people like it, or like it well enough and want to stretch their seafood dollar, great. Even high-end sushi places offer California Rolls. But kani has too much displaced real crab meat and other roll options at Japanese restaurants, especially in the U.S. and outside of Japan generally. (Native Japanese restaurants use it, too, but not as extensively as in the U.S. and especially at those mixed-cuisine, Chinese-Japanese-Thai or pan-Asian places.) It’s true that crab is more difficult to cook with than other types of seafood — the tough shells, the sharp claws, all that anatomy and nitpicking for little bits of meat. But unagi (freshwater eel) presents certain challenges, too, and yet is generally available in most sushi restaurants worldwide. Crab could be processed and sold wholesale in much the same way, if maybe at a higher price point. I’d be willing to pay more for a sushi roll with real crab in it than any other type of roll on the menu, if that were the trade-off. Instead, it’s typically not even an option — it’s kani, kani everywhere.

We feel that this situation can no longer be ignored. Yes, some Japanese restaurants offer real (if sometimes canned) crab and find creative, interesting and/or local ways of preparing it. Notable near us in this category is Sushi Prince, in Fairfax (Virginia). Yes, it uses crabstick in some dishes, but also offers a Japanese Crabcake (baked), a Chesapeake Bay Spring roll (soft-shell crab tempura), and a 007 Roll. What’s more, they’ll use real crab meat in any dish that contains crabstick by default. We once ordered the Prince Tempura Roll, which is deep-fried eel, avocado, cream cheese, and crab, plus eel sauce and two kinds of mayo — wasabi (white) and spicy (orange). It’s served warm. Sushi Prince will get its own review shortly. (Short preview: It’s fantastic.)

This is crab country. We urge more Japanese restaurants — and sushi places in particular — to work the real thing into menu options. This will probably involve pressuring suppliers to be responsive and to get more creative, but even those places that can’t or don’t source fresh crab meat can start using the canned or bulk stuff (which is still real) tomorrow. And short of that, please mothball the California-Roll-with-Every-Combo policy — because if it comes with kani, we’re not ordering it, and a Sushi Lunch Combo with a Salmon Roll side is still a high-margin item. So please.

We want… you know.

How they make this sausage, if the description above wasn’t sufficiently unappetizing
♦ More on mustard: To Cut or Not to Cut. Unless you know the crab was sourced from open waters, best to avoid the stuff. Not that there’s any hepatopancreas mustard in crab legs, just sayin’.
♦ Pictures of real snow-crab legs. Note there’s no “gel matrix” there.

7 Replies to “What’s Wrong with California Rolls”

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