What Is Imitation Crab Meat? Is the Crab Substitute Vegan?

By: Sascha Bos  | 
If you've had a California roll, you've probably eaten imitation crab. Herman Au Photography / Getty Images

If you've had a grocery store California roll or mixed seafood salad, you've probably eaten imitation crab meat. But what is imitation crab, exactly?


What Is Imitation Crab?

Imitation crab meat is a crab stand-in made from processed fish meat. Real crab meat can be very expensive, so restaurant chefs and home cooks often use imitation crab to mimic the flavor, color and texture of fresh crab meat without the high price tag.

Invented in Japan in 1975, surimi, as it's known in Japanese, has become popular around the world.


You can find imitation crab in the refrigerated or frozen section of grocery stores labeled "crab sticks" or "surimi seafood."

Do You Need to Cook Imitation Crab?

No, imitation crab is precooked, so you can add it to cold dishes without additional cooking. You can also serve it hot in dishes like crab cakes.


Imitation Crab Ingredients

Imitation crab meat is primarily made from surimi, a minced fish paste with an elastic consistency, kind of like the fish version of a hot dog. So, while imitation crab isn't real crab meat, it is real seafood and, therefore, not vegan.

Depending on the manufacturer, imitation crab products may contain:


  • White fish, usually Alaska pollock (the same fish used to make frozen fish sticks). This is the primary ingredient in surimi and usually the first ingredient on a package of imitation crab.
  • Egg whites, which help bind the minced fish together.
  • Starch, such as tapioca starch or corn starch, which helps the meat retain its shape during freezing and refrigeration.
  • Natural and artificial flavors, such as crab extract.
  • Orange food dye, which can be artificial or natural (for example beet juice extract or paprika).

What Dishes Contain Imitation Crab?

Restaurant menus don't often advertise their use of imitation crab, but, due to the high price of real crab meat, you can assume any crab dish that doesn't specifically mention the species of crab (such as snow crab or Dungeness crab) uses imitation crab.

You can find imitation crab in dishes like:


  • Mixed seafood salads
  • Sushi rolls
  • Crab dip
  • Crab cakes
  • Crab rangoons
  • Seafood pasta