Totally tubular: You can stop searching for the perfect protein-packed snack— this shy Japanese ingredient has got you covered.

When the inevitable mid-afternoon snack craving hits and your stomach rumbles like thunder rolling in, what do you typically reach for? Maybe it’s an apple or a banana, a small bag of chips or a slice of leftover pizza. Perhaps it’s a tall glass of water to quell the hunger pangs ahead of dinner plans. But if there’s one thing you’ve never quite considered grabbing from the fridge, this might be it: a hollow, rubbery, flesh-coloured, tube-shaped food product comprised of fish paste, salt, sugar, starch, natural MSG and egg white.

Yep, you read that right. We’re talking about chikuwa (literally “bamboo ring”). It’s an inexpensive, convenient and well-liked Japanese ingredient meant for snacking or for simmering in hot broths. Found in the refrigerated section of grocery stores across Japan, chikuwa comes cooked, packaged and ready to eat—which is great, considering it’s fairly labour-intensive to make at home. White fish (and that means anything from pollock to eel to mackerel to shark) is ground down to produce surimi (fish paste) before being mixed with the remaining ingredients and wrapped around a metal stick or, more traditionally, a bamboo branch. The loaded skewer is then steamed or broiled before the stick is removed and the resulting long, hollow log is sliced into small rings to be cooled in the fridge or added to hot soups.

So just what is the appeal of this funky fish cake? Well, there are several reasons it’s a fan favourite in Japanese cuisine. Low in fat but comparatively high in protein, chikuwa makes a quick and healthy snack on the go or a great side dish paired with a cold drink at the end of a long day. Firm and flavour-absorbent, it’s an ideal stovetop ingredient because it maintains its composure at high temperatures and takes on surrounding flavours to boot, adding an extra little something to dishes like udon, oden, yakisoba and Japanese curry. And chikuwa is nothing if not versatile: its hollow middle offers up a unique opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. Asparagus and other veggies are popular fillers, but in some sushi restaurants it’s not uncommon to stuff the hollow with cheese and deep-fry the log in tempura batter. Hungry yet?

There’s no shortage of chikuwa variations to taste, so get started if you’re a seafood lover. Try kawa (skin) chikuwa with crispy sh skin wrapped around the skewers, or ebi chikuwa if shrimp is your preference. Have a go at take (bamboo) chikuwa, which stays on the bamboo stick after being cooked, or add more protein to your diet with tofu chikuwa. In fact, a great place to find all the chikuwa you can handle is Tottori Prefecture. It may be the least populous prefecture in Japan, but Tottori boasts consistently high rates of chikuwa consumption compared to the rest of the country. Roll it, stuff it or simply cut it and dig in—whichever way you slice it, chikuwa is here to stay.