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What is Chikuwa?

By J. Leach
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Chikuwa is a type of processed seafood product that always comes in a tube shape, and is sometimes called a Japanese fish tube. This fishcake has a rubbery texture and a salty, fishy flavor. The word chikuwa means bamboo ring, which is what the product resembles. It can be eaten as a snack on its own or used in various soup and stir-fry recipes. It is also a popular edition to bento boxes, square Japanese lunch boxes that often contain rice, vegetables, and fish.

In Japan, fishcakes are types of kamaboko, processed and cured fish purees that are made from surimi. Surimi, Japanese for meat paste, can be made from any type of meat, even though it is usually composed of various inexpensive fish. In the United States, surimi is used to create imitation crab and lobster.

Most kamaboko fishcakes are sold as small, prepackaged semi-circular loaves. These can be dyed on the outside, usually a pink or red color, or they can be left uncolored. Sometimes the loaves have patterns — like a spiral or star burst — in them to celebrate special occasions and holidays. A kamaboko is typically served by sliced and eaten on its own, or it may be added to soups and noodle dishes. The slices can add a nice color contrast to a dish, and can be used as an eye-catching garnish, especially if the cake contains a pattern.

To make the surimi that is used for chikuwa, a mix of inexpensive white fish, like pollock, is ground into a smooth paste. Various flavorings can be added to the paste at this point. To create the shape of the chikuwa, the fish paste is extruded into a mold that usually has either a metal or bamboo rod running through the middle to create a hollow tube. When the product is finished, it is often wrapped in plastic packages that have images of bamboo plants on them, making reference to the products name and shape.

Chikuwa can be eaten directly from the package as a high-protein, low-fat treat. Shops often sell it in single serving packages as a convenient snack item. Some retailers also add the treat to bento boxes. When added to a box, it is usually sliced diagonally and sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds to create a pleasing presentation.

Sliced chikuwa can be added to some noodle dishes as an extra source of protein. The fish product can also be tossed into a stir fry. If used in these dishes, it is generally a good idea to cut it to the same size as the other ingredient to insure even heating. Since it is already cooked, it should be added at the end of cooking, so it can be warmed through and coated in sauce.

Vegetables, like steamed okra or julienned green bell peppers and carrots, can be stuffed into the chikuwa tubes. They can also be used as shells for anything that can be thinly sliced. Once stuffed, the tubes can be cut on the bias and added to a bento box, or eaten as an appetizer.

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