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How did crabs become a part of the Russian diet? And where did Russia’s popular crab salad come from?

This was one of the first comfort foods I discovered when I moved to Russia in 2003, and boy, could I use some comforting. I was thousands of miles away from my family and friends, trying to communicate in a language I could barely speak at the time. When I first tried a rich, creamy spoonful of this salad, I found it instantly therapeutic. The soothing flavors and textures told me that, somehow, everything was going to turn out all right. I soon found myself buying it from the local market nearly every day.

Like many of Russia’s salads, this is definitely not a diet food. Most Russian salads contain copious amounts of mayonnaise, carbs, and meat, very few fresh vegetables, and absolutely zero lettuce. (This, despite the confusing fact that the Russian word for lettuce is “salat”!) This kraboviy salat is a mainstay for celebrations in Russia and many other countries of Eastern Europe. Where did it originate, though?

The story begins in the 1700s, when Catherine the Great ruled the Russian Empire. (Side note: Catherine was also the empress who brought my ancestors to Russia.) A lady of sophisticated tastes, she had a constant hankering for crab and lobster. Since these crustaceans were hard to find in Russia at the time, she ordered a team of Russian scientists to search the Baltic Sea for them.

Not long after Catherine’s reign, in 1804, the Russian ship Nadezhda launched an expedition into the Pacific Ocean off Russia’s east coast, to research local flora and fauna. The local natives introduced the researchers to the local Kamchatka crabs. As technology for preserving and transporting food improved, Kamchatka crab became increasingly common in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and Russia’s fishermen sold it to the American market as well.

In fact, many Russian sources trace their country’s recipe for crab salad to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada. In the early 1900s, restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver began serving popular “Crab Louie” salad. The recipe made its way to Russia, where the taste for crab had continued to develop, well into the Soviet period. Crabmeat could be found in many Soviet grocery stores up to the 1950s, and one popular Soviet cookbook, the “Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine,” published a crab salad recipe in 1952.

By the 1970s and 1980s, however, shortages were rampant in Soviet stores. How to make crab salad, a mainstay on many holiday tables, without any crab? Russia’s scientists found a solution just past the country’s eastern border — in Japan.

Japan’s cooks had been processing ground fish into surimi since the 12th century. By the 1960s, they had developed a form of surimi that was easy to preserve, and could mimic the texture and flavor of many seafoods, including crab.

A Soviet company in the city of Murmansk tried their hand at making their own surimi. In 1984, the company released Russia’s first synthetic crab sticks onto the market. They were a huge hit. Other surimi factories popped up across the U.S.S.R., and remain in business in today’s modern Russia.

One Russian YouTuber, Sergei Malozyomov, visited a surimi museum in Japan, as well as a factory in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. There, he tried various crab sticks, from cheaper ones (heavy on starch and egg whites) to expensive sticks (higher fish content, including real crabmeat). He notes that the taste does not vary much; both options are delicious.

You can try this popular recipe with either surimi sticks or with real crab meat. Either way, I guarantee you’ll find it rich, delicious, and immensely comforting.

Recipe

8 crab sticks, chopped into cubes

quarter of a long cucumber or half of a small one, chopped to cubes

4 boiled eggs, grated or diced

quarter of a small onion or less, diced or grated

3 tablespoons canned corn (remove water first)

4 tablespoons of mayonnaise or more

A pinch of salt

Sprinkling of garlic powder, dill weed, and black pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients, let sit in the refrigerator, then serve!

David J. Schmidt is an author, podcaster, multilingual translator, and homebrewer who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, California.

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