An Expert Answers Your Burning Questions About Crab Sticks

Is there any crab in them? Why are some red and some orange? What, exactly, is going on?
Souria Cheurfi
Brussels, BE
Three orange crab sticks staked on top of each other. Background: view from above of aqua blue ocean waves crashing on a white sand beach.
Photos: Getty Images/EyeEm Premium. Adobe Stock/pixarno. Collage by VICE.

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Matthieu, 27, knows too much about crab sticks. Before landing his dream job as a “flavourist” at a small company in Belgium, he got his Masters in Flavour Formulation in Versailles, where he wrote his thesis on crab sticks. He then went on to intern for a large French company that produces the mysterious orange tubes, where he learned the secrets of the trade. It’s for this reason he doesn’t want to reveal his last name.


In his current job, Matthieu creates flavours mostly for drinks, including fruity beers like the Belgian Krieks or Pêcheresses (flavoured with cherries and peaches, respectively), but also liqueurs, cocktails, energy drinks and more. But crab sticks appealed to him because they are almost completely artificially-flavoured, an interesting proposition for a pro.

Also known as surimi, Japanese for “minced meat”, the foundation of the crab stick was created in the 12th century as a way to preserve fish, but took its modern form much later. Its iconic flavour and weird look make it a fan favourite, even though no one really knows what they’re eating. I asked the crab stick aficionado a few questions.

Put Stuff in Your Beer

VICE : Hi, Matthieu. How were crab sticks as we know them invented?
Matthieu: In 1973, a Mr Sugino [head of seafood company, Sugiyo] invented a flakey version of the crab stick called kani kamaboko in Japan. Then, in 1975, the brand Osaki re-invented the product in the stick form we know today. Between 1973 and 1975, crab sticks expanded to the rest of Asia, the US, Europe and South Africa. Today, surimi in stick form is the most common type around the world — it represents about 25 percent of surimi production.

Is there really any crab in them?
No, not at all. The crab taste is only in the flavouring. Essentially, crab sticks are made of concentrated whitefish protein. The fish meat is shredded, rinsed over and over in freshwater, then pressed until it turns into an odourless and tasteless paste. We call it “surimi base”. The base is frozen between -20 and -30°C, then sold to food companies. They add in water, ice, a texturing agent to give it elasticity and firmness, oil, sugar, salt and flavour. You can also add flavour enhancers which boost the taste without changing it.


Crab sticks sold in Europe are made of Alaska pollock or blue whiting, and sometimes hake fish from the Pacific. In Japan, it’s also common to use fish like white croakers, bream or lizardfish. These are the preferred species because they have the most neutral taste. The taste and texture really vary depending on the type of fish used.

What’s the difference between red and orange crab sticks?
The colour is just for visual recognition. It’s a big part of its identity. In France, Belgium and Italy, the sticks are orange because they’re crab-flavoured. But in the rest of the world, they’re often more pink or red and they can be flavoured with clam or lobster. That was the most surprising thing I learned while writing my thesis. Until then, I thought they could only be crab-flavoured.

What makes for good crab sticks?
In Japan, there are a lot of different types of surimi. What differentiates them is how they’re cooked. Some are steamed, others are cooked in the oven, boiled or fried. It gives them different textures.

How many flavour enhancers are there in crab sticks? 
Three or four. They add specific notes that enhance the general taste or mouthfeel. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), which you can find in yeast extract; yeast extract itself, which adds body to the flavour; salt; and very sugary alcohol like white wine and cognac. They lend fruity notes and an extra kick.

Are you supposed to unroll the surimi before you eat it? Why is it rolled up in the first place?
I don’t know! It happens once the paste is cooked. Then it’s cut and rolled up. I think it’s because people have fun unrolling them.

One last thing: is surimi on pizza worse than pineapple on pizza?
Surimi on pizza? I mean, if you love surimi, why not. But if you ask me, it’s worse than pineapple.