At the mouth of the Columbia, where the West’s largest river meets the world’s largest ocean, 70 people have come from around the world to learn to make imitation seafood.
“Welcome to Surimi School,” says the man at the podium with arms outstretched. He is Jae Park, our host for the three-day workshop, a food scientist at Oregon State University, and the man who wrote the book on surimi. Park helped pioneer ways to process low-value fish into a product that can be engineered to imitate expensive seafood delicacies from around the world.
Surimi seafood is a little like Jell-o made from fish. It can be flavored, colored, and shaped to resemble crab meat, shrimp, scallops, even ham. The Japanese invented it, the French love it, and it has saved the jobs of a fleet of fishermen in the North Pacific.
In the United States, surimi seafood is what’s inside sushi California rolls, and it is the basic ingredient in krab salad. My first exposure to krab kuisine was years ago in the salad bar section of the university cafeteria. The white chunks splashed with red dye and bathed in mayonnaise seemed to resemble pieces of sweet latex more than crab. Things have changed since then, and Jae Park has helped them change.
Park started OSU Surimi School in 1993 as an annual event at OSU’s Seafood Lab in Astoria, to help teach and certify those working on the front lines of surimi and surimi seafood processing. But as the event grew, Park invited industry leaders, government agency staff, and scientists to talk about bigger issues of supply, demand, and the development of new products. As the idea of making surimi seafood expanded to all hemispheres, Surimi School has grown to include sessions in France, Spain, Thailand, Peru, and elsewhere around the world; and the Surimi Industry Forum has become a gathering place for an industry now worth nearly a billion dollars worldwide.
Here at Surimi School in Astoria, there are people from all over the globe—fishermen from Alaska, seafood processors from Mexico and India, sugar suppliers from the American Midwest, marketers from France and Russia, food scientists from Asia—a United Nations of seafood that for the next three days will explore the science and future of surimi seafood.
For 900 years, surimi has been a delicacy made by Japanese cooks, who created the shimmering white gel from left-over fish filets ground up with a dash of salt as a way to preserve the extra catch. In the 1960s a Japanese chemist discovered that surimi could be stabilized and frozen with the addition of sugar. That discovery launched the surimi industry in a fleet of Japanese factory ships. The Japanese fleet joined ships from the Soviet Union and Poland, all plying the north Pacific Rim from Alaska to Oregon, trawling for fish that most salmon-fishing Americans would throw back as trash, fish such as hake, with little value beyond fertilizer.
In the 1970s, when the foreign factory ships came looking for hake off the Oregon coast, the open seas were pretty much wide open for fishing beyond the three miles offshore. But when the lucrative Pacific salmon industry went belly-up in the late 70s, West Coast fishermen were quick to blame the foreign fleets with their fish-gulping nets so close to shore. The U.S. Senate responded by claiming sovereign territory to 200 miles offshore, banishing the foreign fleets and giving local fishermen exclusive domain out to the continental shelf. But by then, fish were scarce, fuel was expensive, and the big canneries—Bumblebee and Starkist among them—were moving away, taking jobs and markets overseas.
Michael Morrissey, superintendent of OSU’s Seafood Lab and Food Innovation Center, recounts the history. “Oregon fishermen are resourceful,” he says. They saw an opportunity to put their boats back to work by filling the empty holds of foreign factory ships that had been forced 200 miles offshore. “And they’re politically very astute,” he adds. Oregon fishermen were negotiating a joint economic venture with the Soviets at the same time the U.S. government was boycotting the Moscow Olympics. The fishermen’s joint venture lasted until the 1990s, when shore-based fish-processing plants replaced the foreign factory ships in Newport and Astoria. Some fish plants that had been boarded up for a decade reopened as manufacturers of surimi. And hake, the boney whitefish reviled by salmon fishermen, got a marketing makeover, changed its name to Pacific whiting, and became the highest volume fishery in the state. America was in the surimi business.
Developing a shore-based whiting industry for Oregon was the first project for the brand-new Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station when it opened in 1988. Since then, several surimi manufacturers have established in Oregon, and COMES researchers have worked to improve the product and the market.
In a world where overharvesting of ocean fish is an increasing concern, Park and his colleagues at COMES have helped an industry focus on overlooked and underutilized species, extracting nutritious protein from so-called trash fish and turning it into new seafood-based products. Today, the American surimi industry depends on relatively robust stocks of Alaska pollock and Pacific whiting from the cold water of the north Pacific.
Back at Surimi School, an industry representative presents an overview of the process, showing moon-suited workers as they mash up the filets in a rotating drum and wash the minced fish in huge metal tubs to remove soluble fats, residual salts, and any lingering taste or aroma of fish. The minced filets are pressed into blocks, frozen, and shipped to processing factories where the surimi is mixed with starch, color, and flavor extracts, molded into shapes, and shipped to markets around the world.
One of the most common red dyes used in surimi seafood is carmine, which comes from the crushed bodies of tiny beetles called cochineal that live in South America. The dye doesn’t fade when heated or exposed to air; it stays a perfect lipstick red. Cochineal is the same crushed bug that’s used in cosmetics, a lab-coated scientist explains. “Crabstick and lipstick: basically the same color.”
Park and his OSU colleagues have developed many innovations to the surimi making process. Their early research concentrated on how long whiting could be out of the water and remain usable. Pacific whiting had been considered an inferior food fish for a reason: its filets lose quality rapidly, even when frozen. Park and OSU food engineer Ed Kolbe explored ways to minimize the activity of troublesome enzymes that made the fish mushy and off-tasting. They developed a process called “ohmic heating” which sends regular household alternating current directly through the fish paste, generating heat as a result of electrical resistance, and rapidly firming the paste into a gel. With that innovation, Pacific whiting became one of the leading species for surimi production.
Surimi School culminates with a tasting. Tables are stacked with packages of brightly colored and wildly shaped surimi seafood, an international buffet of surimi seafood that includes scallops, scampi, hot dogs, even desserts, all made from surimi. When surimi seafood began to appear in American markets in the early 1980s, the state of Maine passed a law requiring any product made of surimi and masquerading as, say, Maine lobster, must be clearly labeled as “imitation.” Federal laws soon followed. In the case of crab, the compromise was made as Krab. However, in 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that seafood processors can now drop the word “imitation” and use the phrase: “crab-flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein.”
In Asia, surimi is marketed in its own right, not imitating anything. “There are 500 ways to serve surimi seafood in Japan,” a marketer from Japan explains to me. “The favorite is kamaboko. It comes in all colors and during holidays it is given as a gift.”
The French have a special fondness for surimi seafood in all its iterations. I visit with a seafood marketer from France as he unpacks cartons of his company’s crabsticks, morsels of surimi seafood about the size of a pack of gum, flavored like crab and packaged with a dipping sauce. Except for the splash of carmine, French crabsticks don’t work too hard to look like any real seafood. “There is a huge market for surimi seafood in France,” he says in a melt-in-your-mouth Parisian accent. “It is ready to eat, low in fat, and better for you than chocolate.”
A quick glance at the variety of products on display would make you think chocolate surimi might be right around the corner. There’s seafood-based ham, molded into pink oval slices edged with white bands of look-alike fat. There’re tubes of surimi cannelloni stuffed with cheese. There’s even a cellophane package of what looks like surimi Twinkies in primary colors as bright as candy.
Park gathers a dozen of us around a display table where he has an ice chest full of surimi seafood products for us to sample. He begins with the Japanese kamaboko. It is shimmering white, no lipstick color added, and molded into a silky half cylinder about the size of a salami and mounted on a smooth wooden shingle. Kamaboko doesn’t pretend to be anything else but itself. And, fetching up to $40 a pound in Japan, why should it? It slices easily with Park’s sharp knife, like butter. He carefully spears each tiny slice with a toothpick, arranges the samples on a paper plate, and offers a slice to each of us. It has a rubbery texture, like the white of a boiled egg. It does not melt in your mouth like Jell-o, but stays firm enough to chew. It reminds me a little of tofu, without the chalk, or egg white without the sulfur. It is not sweet. It is not even crabby. It tastes cool and briny.
More samples follow: spicy surimi seafood mixed with onions, from Thailand; tiny black eel shapes colored with squid ink, from Spain; French crabsticks with dipping sauces in every flavor except chocolate. In the hands of these masters, surimi seafood becomes a marketplace of tastes and textures. We sample soft surimi seafood that tastes like chili peppers and firm surimi seafood that tastes like a bicycle tire. The surimi scampi tastes like shrimp; the surimi ham is salty and chewy. Each product has a different taste, a different texture, a different cuisine in mind. Surprisingly little of it tastes fishy.
For most of the people at Surimi School, the surimi they brought from home is their favorite. The Japanese prefer their mild kamaboko; the Thai like it spicy; the Americans like it sweet. Surimi, I am learning, is much more than trash fish and lipstick.
And there’s more to Jae Park’s work, as well. Lately he’s been exploring the use of fish protein left over from the surimi-making process to create a kind of fish sauce that’s characteristic of southeast Asian cuisine. “Our preliminary taste tests show good potential,” he says. One day he hopes you may be flavoring your surimi seafood dish with Oregon-caught fish sauce.