How evil are prawn crackers?

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prawn1

Lunch after a school holiday swimming pool session with Bennie and one of his school mates.

A Chinese restaurant that has already appeared in these pages but that has no relevance to this post, so shall remain unnamed.

As we await our food, we are presented with a big plate of prawn crackers.

Chimp, chomp; crunch, crunch.

Halfway through the rapidly dwindling stack of snacks, I voice a not particularly original observation: “These taste like nothing!”

But then I think, to myself this time: “What are prawn crackers made of?”

Further, could it be they are actually made from the eponymous anti-matter “nothing” that is such a feature of the Garth Nix seven-book fantasy series The Keys To The Kingdom, which Bennie is just about to complete and I am just starting?

And if they’re actually made from prawn meat and other stuff, are there any really nasty ingredients as well?

And if not, are they good, bad or indifferent in health and nutrition terms?

I have a hunch that prawn crackers inhabit the same realm of foodiness, if not in practice then at least a little in theory, as seafood extender.

Some rudimentary sleuthing turns up first of all, and no surprise, a long story at the always informative if notoriously unreliable Wikipedia.

My loss I know, but my Asian travel experiences are virtually non-existent, so living in Melbourne’s west for more than a decade is as close I’ve gotten.

And that’s a pretty darn fine “second best”, IMHO!

Still, while I’ve had the more homely style prawn crackers served at Vietnamese places such as Phu Vinh, I am wholly unprepared for the information that prawn crackers – krupuk in Wikipedia’s preferred name – are widely and enthusiastically eaten all over Asia and beyond, with all the regional and national variations you would expect.

A little more digging turns up various forum discussions, recipes and ingredient lists.

The gist of it all, I gather is prawn meat combined with tapioca flour plus seasonings, including – according to many links – MSG.

But while it seems prawn cracker makings are mostly on the benign side, the cooking process – deep frying – is not.

Presumably, then, they’re on the same sort of footing as potato crisps.

I even find a celebrity recipe!

And a 2012 UK news story in which a company using another celeb chef was pinged for false advertising – no prawn in them thar prawn crackers, M’Lord!

More digging and things start to get seriously weird, as I start turning up questions such as “Can rabbits eat prawn crackers?”, “Can you feed your hamster prawn crackers?”, “Can you feed your hamster crackers and tuna?” and even “Do rabbits eat their own rabbits?”

Still, I reckon commercial variety prawn crackers are the food equivalent of muzak.

Austrimi – what you know won’t kill you …

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Austrimi Seafoods, 62-66 Cowie St, North Geelong. Phone: 5245 2600

It all seems a bit surreal – a bit of low-key musing on seafood extender leading to research about surimi landing me at a seafood processing plant in North Geelong.

Nevertheless, here I am, suited up – gumboots, skin-hugging white coverall, hair net for what little hair I have and even a net for my whispy moustache.

I’m the guest of Austrimi Seafoods and I’m here out of nothing but curiosity about the company, its products and – most of all – exactly how seafood extender is made.

I’m shown around – given the tour – by an amiable Englishman named Brendan.

He shows me the basic ingredients – byproducts of egg white and soy, blocks of surimi, corn starch – and the recipes on the wall.

He explains to me that while other company products see the consumer responsible for the ultimate cooking, seafood extender is edible out of the frozen packet – so health regulations are strictly adhered to at every step of the way. One slip and the plant will be closed down pronto.

All – including mirin flavour and synthetic crab favouring – go into a very big mixer.

From there, it travels along a production line that company regulations prevent me from photographing too closely, but which does indeed resemble – as a Geelong Advertiser colleague who has preceded me by several years on The Tour had suggested – an extremely large pasta machine.

The seafood extender production line at Austrimi.

The colouring is added along the way,  before the product is sealed in plastic, steamed, cooled and eventually frozen.

The most surprising thing about being here is the least noticeable.

The smell is of only medium strength but, truthfully, smacks of nothing more than fresh sea air.

Certainly, it’s nothing like a fishy pong, let alone the odious stenches I have come across in other food processing situations, especially those concerning meat, some of which I have worked on in previous lives.

Seafood extender?

I may never embrace it, but having seen the manufacturing process, I now understand that it’s a relatively innocuous product.

It may be highly processed, but so are cheese, meat smallgoods, tofu and many other products treated as benign, essential and common in most Australian households.

And is there anything more highly processed and chemically compromised than commercial ice cream? Or soft drinks, which I love? Or those lollies laughably advertised on the telly as being “all natural”?

It’s along those lines that I have earlier pursued a line of questions with Austrimi general manager Russell Pratt.

Russell Pratt, general manager of Austrimi in North Geelong.

Russell’s a busy man but when we finally meet he could hardly be more generous with his time and or in answering my questions.

Before The Tour with Brendan, we sit and talk in Austrimi’s boardroom.

Actually, boardroom is a bit of a redundant term, as Austrimi these days is a fully owned subsidiary of Ambaco, and is part of that company’s “seafood cluster” of business endeavours.

Russell, who has a background in sales and marketing, happily confesses that his current role is a lot more wide-ranging and – on occasion – hands-on.

He’s two and a half years into this, his second stint with the company.

Russell has spent almost all his life in Geelong, has five kids and lives five minutes up the road. He’s had an interesting and varied career but is happy in his current position.

It’s a small enterprise with about 30 or so employees.

Growth and the bottom line are important, but not at any cost.

The company is currently easing off from a busy period that saw staff working much overtime. Russell’s care for his staff is palpable.

One of the first things he tells me turns my head.

“Surimi is a dieing art.”

Of course, he means this strictly in an Australian context.

Surimi remains a nutritional and cultural fixture in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea and likely always will – as ubiquitous as Vegemite is for us.

While Austrimi continues to produce seafood extender, it no longer makes crab sticks and the company sees its future as lying in the realms of “value added” fish products.

The move away from surimi seems to be driven by several factors – inability to compete with extremely cheap Asian imports and a demanding retail environment looming large among them.

But, yes, it seems there is a perception problem, too.

I ask Russell how many times a week he gets asked if his seafood extender has tripe among its ingredients.

He laughs.

It obviously happens a lot.

“After a while, you hardly even notice it,” he says. “I’ve got more important things to worry about.”

Instead, Russell sees the company trading on its nimbleness in responding quickly to client requests and a dedication to high quality.

You’re unlikely to see Austrimi products in your local supermarket as almost all of its output is sold under client brand names, leaving Austrimi to do what it does best and well away from any marketing and branding details.

Russell is excited about a new line – hand-cut New Zealand hoki, crumbed and oven ready.

For those of us who live surrounded by fresh seafood at the likes of Footscray or Little Saigon markets, it may seem tempting to get sniffy about such a product.

But for those Australians living further inland and without ready access to fresh seafood, such products may seem a very fine thing indeed – especially at about $8 a kilogram.

I’m going to try it out on Bennie – and I’m sure it’ll taste just fine.

Many thanks to Russell and the staff at Austrimi for their hospitality.

Austrimi director Steve Mantzaris of Mantzaris Fisheries and Austrimi general manager Russell Pratt.

How I learned not to hate seafood extender and became fascinated with surimi

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Follow-up post on a visit to Austrimi in North Geelong can be found here.

A ho-hum noodle joint and a lunch unlikely to be blessed by much merit or distinction.

I order the seafood mee goreng.

When it arrives, with dismay I realise I have once more neglected to ask if my ordered dish includes the dreaded seafood extender among its ingredients.

There’s a lot of it.

I fastidiously push it to one side and try to enjoy what’s left.

I depart determined to find out more about this stuff and whether any of the stories are true.

In particular, I’d like to know whether there is truth to the widely-held belief that seafood extender – and its close cousin, the crab stick – is made from tripe. This, I confess, is a significant part of my aversion to the stuff. I suspect many other folk feel the same.

Not surprisingly, I find countless references not just to seafood extender but to tripe being part of it.

Yahoo questions, a forum at Vogue, an IT forum, all sorts of people wondering the same thing as me.

I find a Kath & Kim site debating the topic before the thread descends into rampant spamming.

Even the venerable Snopes site gets in on the act.

But for all the questioning, there’s not too many answers.

Among the more enlightening is a poster at the Australian Kayak Fishing forum who seems to know what he’s talking about.

The answer, it seems, is … no, tripe is not used in the manufacture of seafood extender.

It’s an urban myth.

So now I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to like this, um, product all of a sudden.

But what exactly is seafood extender?

It’s surimi – a term I have not come across until my current trawling.

Turns out seafood extender, crab sticks and the like are part of a venerable – and even revered – Asian tradition, and not necessarily a nasty exercise in bulking up, as suspected by this Western mind despite the amount of Asian food I eat.

Most references I find suggest surimi is best made from pollock, although I also find plenty suggesting cheap and nasty Vietnamese catfish is imported to Australia for the same purpose.

I’m still not warming in any way to seafood extender in my noodles.

It’s flabby and tasteless, just taking up space and bringing nothing to the table at all. And I hate the food colouring that is used in a pathetic attempt to suggest this is real lobster or crab meat.

By contrast, I really like the fish cake slices that are commonly served in many Asian noodles, soups and laksas.

That product has texture and flavour, and is honest about what it is.

Ahhhh! It turns out that, too, is surimi – as are the fish balls and beef balls we’re all familiar with!

I know some people get a bit sniffy about Wikipedia – no doubt with good reason – but its surimi article seems reliable about the many different kinds of surimi and their geographical and cultural baggage.

To my surprise, I find that a major Australian producer of these sorts of products, Austrimi Seafoods, lives right in my town of employment, Geelong.

(And, yes, I’ve contacted them with a view to an interview and tour!)

The company’s product page has a brief summary of the surimi process, while the individual product pages have ingredient breakdowns.

Incredibly, the company produces three different calamari products – Kal-Rings Golden Crumbed (“A formed crumbed ring made from a combination of squid and surimi”), Squid Ring Golden Crumbed (“squid 46%”) and Squid Ring Natural (“Natural squid rings”).

All three of these look like products found in your typical fish and chips shops.

Still, despite my enjoyable and entertaining research, strong doubts linger.

For surely it is not a good thing for food to be so highly processed, mucked around with to such an extent that it resembles no more the original ingredients?

But hold on – isn’t tofu, in all its many, varied and enjoyable forms – just another form of surimi?

To be continued …