After receiving about a dozen requests for my version of Kani Salad over the years, I figured it's high time I figure out what the hype is all about. Yep, that's right, until I started getting requests for it, I'd never heard of this dish, much less tasted it. If you ask for a "kani salad" at a restaurant in Japan you're likely to get some puzzled looks before being served a leafy lettuce salad with some real crab meat on top.
While there's no official history of the Kani Salad, my guess is that it was created in the US by an enterprising sushi chef looking for a way to use up imitation crab before it expires. Like the California roll, it's about as Japanese as Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
But before passing judgement I decided to go try it for myself. What I found was that in most cases, it was a cloyingly creamy mix of mushy seafood with some kind of vegetable haphazardly tossed in to add bulk. Between the creaminess and fishiness, I couldn't eat more than a few bites.
After a deep philosophical debate with myself I decided that the problem wasn't with the concept, but rather with the execution. After all, If lobster salad can be delicious, why not a kani salad?
The first thing I decided is that the salad needs more contrast in every area from flavor to texture to color. To that end, I decided to add some cucumber. The problem with adding fresh cucumber though is that it tends to release a lot of liquid, making the salad watery. To get around this I salted and squeezed the cucumbers. This is a typical Japanese technique that reduces the water content of vegetables which keeps them from making a salad watery. It also changes the texture of the cucumber from crisp to audibly crunchy.
With contrast handled, next I turned my attention to the mayonnaise. American mayo tends to be just creamy without a lot of acidity or sweetness to keep it in check. To get around this, I usually add a little lemon juice and honey to balance it out in coleslaw and potato salads. But since this is supposed to be a Japanese salad, I decided to use Japanese mayonnaise instead, which is more tart and tastes closer to a homemade mayonnaise. The most ubiquitous brand of Japanese mayo is Kewpie, which comes in a teardrop-shaped squeeze bottle with a red top. You can find it at almost any Asian grocery store in the US.
Instead of adding corn, cabbage or some other random vegetable to add bulk, I went with harusamé (also known as bean thread, cellophane or glass noodles). These make for a nice textural element and blends in nicely with the shredded crab.
Lastly, to accent the salad, I grated a little lime zest in into it. The zest gives it a marvelous fresh flavor that keeps the mayonnaise from becoming too creamy. So here you have it: Kani Salad made by an actual Japanese guy. It may not be the kani salad you're used to, but I hope you like it.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- Cut the ends off of the cucumber and slice it in half lengthwise. Slice the cucumber into thin slices at an angle to create long crescents. Put them in a strainer and toss with the salt. Let the cucumbers sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Boil the glass noodles according to the package directions (mine took 3 minutes), then drain the noodles and rinse them with cold water to chill.
- Drain and rinse the noodles under cold water to chill them and then dump them out onto a cutting board. Cut the pile of noodles in half, and then in half again in the other direction. Add the noodles to a bowl.
- Pull the crab apart into thin strips and add them to the bowl with the noodles.
- Give the cucumbers a massage like you're kneading dough until they become translucent without any opaque bits remaining.
- Squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the cucumbers. You'll need to use a massaging motion with your hands while you squeeze to get the most water out. The more you squeeze the cucumbers, the crunchier their texture will be. Add the cucumbers in with the crab.
- Add the mayonnaise, and zest half a lime into the salad using a microplane. Stir the kani salad to combine.