From the world of compound nouns naming food. A month ago, there was lobster salad not made from lobster (though its main ingredient was a crustacean related to Homarus americanus) — now renamed zabster zalad. Now in the NYT Magazine‘s Food & Drink Issue of 10/2/11, in a “Curiosities” section, crabsticks: “What’s in a Crabstick?” by Cliff Kuang:

Not crab. Most crabsticks eaten in the U.S. are made from Alaskan pollock, which are usually filleted, cleaned and minced into a paste while still on the fishing boat. Onshore, the paste is mixed with starch (crabsticks can be anywhere from 40 to 70 percent filler), a little shellfish flavoring (derived from crabs or shrimp) and egg whites (to bind everything together). The mixture is then pasteurized, formed into a thin sheet, rolled into the shape of a tube and sprayed with red dye. How disturbing that sounds depends on where you live. In France, sales have risen more than 40 percent since 2009, prompted by a fad diet that purportedly helped Kate Middleton drop two dress sizes. An earlier boom in the United States didn’t last, though: in the 1980s, we had 22 crabstick producers; today there are 7.

(I have seen crabsticks referred to as “the economy sausage of the seafood world”.) A plate of crabsticks:

And some crabsticks (in a more orange, salmon-like hue) used in sushi.

The compound crabstick (or crab stick) has the default interpretation ‘stick (made) of crab’ (just as lobster salad has the default interpretation ‘salad (made) of lobster’), but compounds can have any number of interpretations, some involving quite distant semantic relationships between their parts.

N-headed composites (including N + N compounds and Adj + N combinations too) can also have non-default interpretations with respect to their head N; in particular, they can be non-subsective. (In subsective X + N composites, the denotation of the composite is a subset of the denotation of the N head: a lobster salad is a salad, a crabstick is (a kind of) stick.) In a prominent sub-type of non-subsective composites, resembloid composites, the composite denotes something that is merely like (in some respect) the denotation of the head: California lilac, jellyfish, sea horse, etc.

I bring up resembloid composites because one way of looking at lobster salad (in the Zabar, or crawfish, sense) and crabstick is that their first element (rather than their second) is resembloid: a salad made of something like lobster (but not actually lobster), a stick of something like crab (but not actually crab).

It would be hard to improve on Cliff Kuang’s entertaining description of how crabsticks are made, but both the Wikipedia entry and the OED3 entry supply some further detail.

From Wikipedia, the connection to surimi (and an explicit reference to resemblance):

Crab sticks (imitation crab meat, seafood sticks, krab) are a form of kamaboko, a processed seafood made of finely pulverized white fish flesh (surimi), shaped and cured to resemble crab leg meat.

On surimi:

Surimi (Japanese: 擂り身, literally “ground meat”, Chinese: 魚漿; pinyin: yú jiāng; literally “fish puree or slurry”) is a Japanese loan word referring to a fish-based food product that has been pulverized to a thick paste and has the property of a dense and rubbery food item when cooked. It is typically made from white-fleshed fish (such as pollock or hake), but the term is also commonly applied to food products made from lean meat prepared in a similar process.

From OED3 (Sept. 2007), surimi again and a reference to resemblance (via the modifier imitation):

(a) A finger-shaped portion of (imitation) crabmeat coated in batter or breadcrumbs (cf. fish stick n. (b) at fish n.1 Compounds 2b).  (b) (A piece of) imitation crabmeat made from a paste of minced fish formed into thin, coral-coloured sticks with a white interior (cf. surimi n.).

1956    N.Y. Times 11 Feb. 14/5   Frozen crab sticks, shaped like the fish sticks now so popular, are a new item… Ten of the..brown-crusted pieces come in the package.

1983    Chicago Tribune 13 Nov. xiii. 10/1   As the price of crab soared, the portion [of crab in the salad] kept shrinking… Now Suehiro uses the new ersatz crab sticks.

1984    N.Y. Times (Nexis) 15 Apr. 23/1   The California roll is not made with real crabmeat but with surimi, the manufactured fish product that the menu identifies as ‘crabstick’.

1992    A. McCarten Modest Apocalypse in First Fictions Introd. 11 223   He was sieving off the residue batter from the oil… A crab-stick was bobbing amid bubbles and going golden.

2006    Daily Mail (Nexis) 4 Apr. 41   A single California roll, containing crabstick and avocado, can easily contain 400 calories.

And on surimi (March 2007), with an etymology:

< Japanese surimi (1678 or earlier) < suri- (combining form < suru to grind) + mi body, meat (cf. sashimi n.).

A relatively tasteless and odourless paste made from minced fish (or sometimes other meat), and which is typically flavoured, shaped, and coloured to produce an inexpensive imitation of crab, lobster, or other foods, often in stick-shaped pieces. [cites from 1973 on]

Note that “lobster salad” could be made of surimi — unless the food language police get to the producers of the product.

4 Responses to “crabsticks”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    There’s also the classic distinction between Chinese oyster sauce, which is “sauce made from/with oysters”, and lobster sauce, which is “sauce used for lobsters”, and contains no seafood. I suspect (but don’t know) that the same distinction exists in Mandarin.

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