If you look up the food “konnyaku” in a common Japanese to English dictionary or translator, chances are you’ll get something along the lines of “jelly made from the starch of devil’s tongue”. Well what the heck is that? I’d never encountered this strange food until I went to Japan, and it was a new and confusing thing to me and all of my friends.
What is this “devil’s tongue” and what exactly is konnyaku? Why is it so gelatinous and why does it come packaged in big blocks? Perhaps you’ve been confused or mesmerized by this strange food before. If not, this post will open your eyes to the great mystery that is konnyaku.
First Off, What is a Devil’s Tongue?
Eventually I found out that a Devil’s Tongue is an Asian perennial plant, and it looks like the picture above. Konnyaku is made from the root of this exotic plant, and that explains the most common dictionary definition for it. It comes packaged in blocks of konnyaku, and can be pressed into a grid of blades to create konnyaku noodles which are called shirataki.
In America, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a block of konnyaku, but I am pretty sure I have had dishes at restaurants with shirataki and just didn’t know what they were at the time. Also, the Devil’s Tongue plants look pretty cool in my opinion. But if it wasn’t for konnyaku, I’d probably still have no idea what they even were.
What it Tastes Like and How it’s Made
Konnyaku is firmer in consistency than most gelatin and also has very little taste on its own. It tastes a little bit like salt, but that’s it. Similar to tofu, konnyaku is used more for its texture than its taste. It also tends to soak up the flavor around it, or whatever it is cooked with. Konnyaku blocks also come packaged in pre-soaked flavors, like spicy konnyaku.
Eating raw konnyaku by itself is not all that pleasant. We tried tasting a block of konnyaku just by itself to see what it was like while we were in Japan. It was weird. Our Japanese friends giggled at us for doing this. However, when konnyaku is prepared properly, it is actually quite pleasant. Shirataki noodles are really cool and give dishes an interesting and unique bit of texture.
Konnyaku is made by mixing flour made from the Devil’s Tongue root with water. Hijiki (a brown sea vegetable that grows on rocky coastlines) is often added for color (without any additives, konnyaku is a pale white) and flavor. The mixture is boiled and then cooled to solidify. Thus, konnyaku as we know it is made.
Konnyaku as a Diet Food
Konnyaku is also very popular as a diet food for a variety of reasons. Konnyaku is about 97% water and the remaining 3% is made up of fiber, protein, starch, and minerals. A normal block of konnyaku has a maximum of about 10 calories, but it’s very filling.
The fiber contained in konnyaku is extremely difficult for humans to digest so it usually just goes through your body and “sweeps out” your digestive system. Because of this, konnyaku is sometimes known as a “broom for the stomach” in Japan.
Konnyaku is gluten-free too. There have been lots of various studies concerning konnyaku and its ability to normalize cholesterol levels, prevent diabetes, and lower high blood pressure. Konnyaku is a pretty healthy food.
I like konnyaku, and I kind of wish I got to experience it more often. Like tofu, konnyaku can either subtly add a lot to a dish, or (when used improperly) can be a strange distraction from the meal. The bouncy texture of konnyaku livens up dishes and can really make some things more fun and enjoyable to consume. It’s kind of goofy just on its own though.
So tell me, have you ever tried konnyaku before? Either in block form or noodle form? How do you like it? How do you think it compares to foods like tofu? Share your thoughts in the comments!