Picture this: mottled gray and white cubes, with a slightly jiggly, jello-like appearance, simmering away in a big hot pot, next to tasty fish cakes, mushrooms, and veggies. Upon scooping one out, the texture is revealed to be much firmer than expected, and upon tasting, it is quite light, springy, and flavored exactly as the broth of the hot pot--only solid and chewable. That is the experience of eating konnyaku. Konnyaku is a gelatinous substance made from the ground and powdered corm (basically a thick, bulbous underground stem) of the konjac plant. Because the part of the plant that is harvested is dug from the ground, konjac is sometimes referred to as a yam despite having absolutely zero resemblance to the tuber family.
Konnyaku can be pressed into a slab shape, rolled into balls, or extruded as noodles, which are in turn known as shirataki. Konnyaku is typically available in two varieties-- black, which is really more of a mottled gray from the addition of hijiki seaweed, and white, which has nothing extra added during preparation. From a Western view point, konnyaku is truly a puzzling food. It has zero calories, zero protein, and zero fat, and a flavor so mild it borders on flavorlessness. However, it has a truly unique texture and the ability to absorb marinades or the flavors of whatever broth it's being cooked in.
The texture of this food is truly what makes it worth eating. When cut into bite-sized chunks and simmered in even the most basic dashi, konnyaku gains a mouth-feel that is somewhat like eating a mushroom, and yet surprisingly reminiscent of meat, despite being made of a combination of yam flour and water. It is springy, bouncy, and at the same time not sticky, chewy, or really heavy. Since it has no calories and a relatively high mineral content, konnyaku feels very light in the stomach and for this reason has been prized in Japan and the west alike as an excellent diet food.
Konnyaku, and it’s noodle form, shirataki are usually served in Japan as part of simmered dishes like nabe, sukiyaki, and oden in order to take advantage of its flavor absorbing power. While not as commonly done, konnyaku can also be grilled, which gives it a pleasant, crispy outer skin. Recently, konnyaku’s noodle form, shirataki have spread out into usage as a general low-calorie noodle substitute, making appearances in ramen, and even in an extra thin “angel hair” variety to go along with pasta sauce. Additionally, konnyaku is not just limited to use in savory dishes. It is often mixed with fruit juice to make a delicious jelly type snack that is extremely popular in Asia, making it a truly versatile food. If you’re looking to add some low-calorie bulk to a stew, soup, or pasta dish, or find a clever way to substitute meat in a recipe, konnyaku and shirataki might just be the thing you’re looking for.