There are two good reasons to eat: sustenance and pleasure. Proponents of the most recent "miracle" diet food, shirataki, clearly don't give a damn about either. Shirataki are firm, slightly gelatinous noodles made by processing flour from the konjac yam (konnyaku in Japanese) with limewater. Though the process may sound like a chemistry experiment, konjac-based gels are a culinary tradition in Japan.
Of course, Westerners haven't taken to konnyaku for its centuries-old pedigree. No, it's become a darling of the weight-conscious set because it possesses one remarkable quality: zero calories. In fact, shirataki noodles have no nutritional value whatsoever. It's right there on the package I bought from Sanko, a Japanese food store in downtown Toronto: no calories, no carbs, no vitamins, no nothing, including flavour.
Shirataki come packaged in a viscous, watery solution that reeks of dried seafood and sweaty gym socks. Despite the intimidating and potentially off-putting first impression, they are surprisingly easy to prepare and enjoy. The noodles are drained and rinsed, then boiled or sauteed in a dry non-stick pan for a few minutes to eliminate any lingering odours. The flavourless result can then be tossed into pretty much any imaginable soup, noodle or composed salad dish, where the translucent noodles absorb the flavours of their plate-mates.
My experiments with shirataki led me to the conclusion that there's a good way and a bad way to prepare them. The bad way? As an ersatz diet-food substitute for Italian wheat pasta. The slippery, squeaky texture of shirataki lacks the substance to hold up to a proper pasta sauce, even something as delicate as a basil pesto.
Shirataki are fabulous, however, when used more traditionally. I made an Asian-inspired chicken broth with sliced ginger, Korean gochujang red chili paste, some palm sugar, a little soy and a dash of rice wine vinegar, to which I added sauteed baby bok choy and button mushrooms as well as a package of noodles. Despite 20 minutes of simmering (and a brief spin in the microwave the following night), the shirataki remained remarkably firm, and that resilient slipperiness makes them ideal for slurping. Soup also highlights konnyaku's ability to absorb the flavours around it – the noodles eventually took on a mild, pleasant chicken and ginger essence and offered the same wintery comfort as a bowl of old-fashioned chicken noodle soup. The lesson, I guess, is to eat these noodles for the same reasons the Japanese have for centuries: sustenance and pleasure.
Special to The Globe and Mail