There is a Japanese ingredient called devil’s tongue jelly that is very distinctive. More frequently called Konnyaku, it is a phenomenally low calorie food: a 9 ounce (255 g) package has only 30 calories, just 0.12 calories per gram, compared with a carbohydrate’s 4 calories per gram or a fat’s 9 calories per gram. Consequently, it is more or less tasteless. Its purpose is as a filler and to provide an interesting texture to a stew or other dish.
Konnyaku is made from the root of the Amorphophallus konjac plant (photo at Wikipedia), which is peeled, boiled, and mashed, then a coagulant is added to cause the paste to set. Sometimes and sometimes hijiki (a sea vegetable) is added for flavor, nutrition (calcium) and color. The konnyaku in the photo to the left contains hijiki. This fifteen minute video shows the konnyaku-making process from beginning to end. Or at least that is my best guess, as the video is without narration and has only Japanese subtitles. And here’s a cute picture of the konnyaku family at a Japanese web site.
Konnyaku is also sold in noodle form, which are known as shirataki (lit. “white waterfall”). The photo to the right shows a stew containing shirataki. Both konnyaku and shirataki can be found in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores, especially those with a Japanese specialty.
Konnyaku frequently appears in winter stews — the most famous one being oden — as it provides a dramatic contrast to ingredients which are soft from a long simmer. Oden appears frequently in convenience stores in Japan, usually in a water bath next to the cash register. I don’t eat fish, and so I never tried the offerings I saw (even if I did eat fish, I probably wouldn’t have tried them).
Something about the stew captured my attention, and I have tried many times to make a vegetarian oden at home. Recently, I finally figured it out, thanks to the invaluable Washoku (it seems that every other post at this blog mentions this book. And for good reason. If you want to learn how to cook Japanese home-style food, buy the book.).
One of the beauties of the stew is that you can adjust ingredients as you see fit. No lotus root or burdock root? Leave them out and add some more potato or mushrooms (the Japanese sweet potatoes sold by the mushroom farmers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market are especially good). I haven’t tried green vegetables like snow peas or green beans, but it is conceivable that they would be tasty.
Japanese Vegetable Stew
Recipe inspired by Elizabeth Andoh’s “Soy-Stewed Chicken with Vegetables” on page 254 of Washoku
2 large carrots, peeled and roll cut
3-4 Japanese sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in odd-shaped pieces
3 potatoes, cut in odd-shaped pieces
2 inches of burdock root (a.k.a. gobo)
2 inches of lotus root, peeled and roll cut
A few mushrooms, preferably shiitake
A few ounces of deep-fried tofu
1 block of konnyaku (about 12 oz.)
1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil
3/4 cup vegetarian dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon sake
Preparing the konnyaku
When you open a package of konnyaku, you will probably notice a somewhat funky aroma. Do not worry, this is not a sign of spoilage (assuming the konnyaku is opened before its sell by date). Rinse the block with clean water. konnyaku is slippery, so the utmost care is needed when you slice it. To make triangles, first slice it in half lengthwise. Tip each piece onto its flat end and slice through the middle to make two thin sheets (you’ll have four pieces now). Next, use the tip of your knife to make shallow cuts into the surface of the konnyaku to provide additional surface area for flavor absortion. After scoring both sides, cut the pieces in half lengthwise, and then into triangles. Do not stack pieces on top of each other as you cut, as they might slip as the knife applies pressure.
Making the stew
The first step — and quite a fun one — is to dry roast the konnyaku in a pan to remove excess moisture and thus allow it to absorb the flavors of the stock. Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. When it is hot, add the konnyaku to the dry pan. Do not worry, it will not stick. Shake the pan to loosen the pieces and turn them now and then. When the konnyaku starts to squeak, add the oil. Stir fry for an additional 30 seconds, then add the vegetables. Stir fry for a few more minutes. Add the tofu and pour in the stock, soy sauce, sugar and sake. Stir the mixture. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, covered, until the vegetables are tender.
Serve with some rice, a salad, some Japanese quick pickles, and a nice saké.
Variation: You can also use shiritake, a noodle-like product made out of konnyaku. To prepare it, rinse it thoroughly after opening the package, cut the threads into shorter pieces if desired, then follow the same dry roasting process as for the konnyaku block.
Note: the roll cut is used to create uneven shapes that have extra surface area for flavor absorption or to reduce the chance of sticky during stir-frying. However, it also makes for vegetables that can be tough to pick up using chopsticks.
To make a vegetarian dashi stock, place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushroom stems into some cool water. The ratio that Andoh uses is 15-20 square inches of kombu and three mushroom stems to 4 1/4 cups of water. Let this mixture steep as long as possible in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to go into the water. When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.