I know that the classic sandwich from childhood was a PB and J. Maybe yours was strawberry, or perhaps orange marmalade; my personal favorite was grape. However, the jelly I speak of today wasn’t meant for peanut butter, in fact I’m pretty sure even Elvis didn’t use this variety of jelly. I’m speaking about konjac jelly or in Japanese culinary terms, konnyaku. This firm jelly derived from the corm of Amorphophallus konjac can ultimately produce a wide variety of products, from noodles to block jellies to fruit-flavored sweets, and has a culinary benefit second to none; it has virtually no calories! That’s right, zero, nada, none! Why? The starch that’s extracted from the corm is indigestible, so basically it’s a jelly fiber. But it produces a firm texture that perfectly complements other ingredients and “fools” our stomachs into thinking we’ve had enough to eat. Psyche!
The Science of Konnyaku
What plant produces a food that has no calories and what is konjac or konnyaku anyway? The name of the genus, Amorphophallus, basically translates to misshapen… ahem… misshapen male private part. There are literally dozens of individual species, but most of the… misshapen private parts emits a pungent odor meant to attract insects and hence perpetuate pollination. However, konjac or konnyaku comes from the “less” glamorous end of the plant, namely the corm.
Now you’re probably thinking, “What the heck is a corm?” A corm is a fleshy underground stem meant for storing energy — if you’ve ever seen a whole taro plant, the corm is the bulb of taro used for that Hawaiian staple, poi, or sliced and deep fried for chips. Once the corm is processed with water and limewater, it produces a firm jelly known in Japanese cuisine as konnyaku.
But how can it be calorie free? Well, the monosaccharide or individual sugar molecule in konnyaku is simply glucose. The same glucose that is found in table or milk sugar… and those can pack on the pounds if not consumed in moderation. True, it’s the same glucose but in the case of milk sugar, table sugar or starch these glucose molecules are connected via alpha bonds, which our digestive enzymes can readily hydrolyze or break, thus rendering digestible and absorbable sugars. The glucose in konnyaku (also known as glucomannan) is connected via beta bonds, which humans can’t hydrolyze or digest. Therefore, it flows right through our intestinal tracts in essence being non-caloric.
However, since konnyaku has a firm jelly structure, it has the added benefit of stretching our stomachs during consumption, thus sending signals to our brains that we’ve consumed enough food for that particular meal. Actually, any bulky foodstuff does the same, but konnyaku is as hearty a texture as they come. So along with having zero or negligible calories and fooling our stomachs that we’ve had enough to eat, konnyaku is a perfect weapon to combat the battle of the bulge. And I don’t know about you, but I’m at that age where just looking at food widens my waist.
The Many Forms of the Magic Jelly
For starters, konnyaku’s basic form is a block that can be cubed to smaller bite-sized pieces for oden, nishime or any braised dish. In its native form it is simply white, though it can be colored with hijiki to produce a speckled, ashen hue. I always incorporate cubed konnyaku in my nishime and oden, which gives the dish another dimension of texture (I won’t say flavor since konnyaku is basically flavorless).
Konnyaku is also produced in noodle form — either white or brown — that can be stir fried with vegetables or added to the perfect sukiyaki. These noodles can also be mixed with traditional ramen noodles for a bowl of contrasting textured ramen.
Konnyaku also comes prepackaged as konnyaku sashimi. Wait! Isn’t sashimi raw seafood? Yes, but because of its firm gelatinous texture, konnyaku falls between the texture of raw mirugai (geoduck clam) and a very firm maguro (tuna). To make the “sashimi” a little more attractive, the konnyaku are usually flecked with bits of shiso for a pleasing green tint or flavored with citrus (once again, since konnyaku is flavorless,) and packages usually include a dipping sauce.
Finally, as previously mentioned, konnyaku can be made into a dessert or candy, especially when flavored with lychee, though konnyaku does present a possible choke hazard, especially with children. These lychee-flavored sweets used to often be in individual cups that you had to “suck” out of the cup. Given that konnyaku doesn’t melt like traditional gelatins, if you inadvertently inhaled one of these morsels it could end with a very BAD outcome, enough so that the European Union banned these sweets for a while and in the States, the FDA issued choke warnings with these products. I personally endorse block konnyaku products but ixnay on the candied products.
One of the Gochiso Gourmet’s favorite konnyaku applications is nishime or a hearty vegetable-based “stew.” Additional ingredients like gobo, shiitake and bamboo also increases the “bulk” factor and keeps the caloric factor to a minimum for those of us who have long fallen off the New Year’s resolution bandwagon. You can modify the solid ingredients to your own palate though I’ve chosen high bulk, low calorie items for my personal nishime.
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp hondashi
2 tbsp shoyu
1 tbsp mirin
1 to 2 cups water
2 cans bamboo shoots cut to bite-sized pieces
3 carrots cut to bite-sized pieces
1 medium size daikon, peeled then cut into bite-sized pieces
1 package nishime kombu tied into bite-sized knots
1 to 2 gobo, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 package dried shiitake rehydrated and quartered
2 packages colored konnyaku cut into bite-sized pieces
2 packages white konnyaku cut into bite-sized pieces
2 packages aburage or fried tofu cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small hasu, peeled cut into bite-sized pieces
1 to 2 sheets of dashi konbu
Place the sheets of dashi konbu on the bottom of a non-stick Dutch oven. Then simmer the 1 to 2 cups of water and add the solid ingredients. Mix the first five ingredients. Next, add to the gently simmered solid ingredients. Cover Dutch oven and keep on low simmer until all of the ingredients are tender — about 30 minutes.
2 packages konnyaku noodles
1 can bamboo shoot strips or 1 can bamboo shoot sliced into 1/4″ slices
1 cup sliced dried shiitake rehydrated
1 large head of Napa cabbage cut into 1/2” strips
1 bunch watercress cut into 2” length
1 bunch green onion cut into 2” length
1 round onion cut with the grain into 1/4” slices
1 block extra firm tofu cut into bite-sized pieces
2/3 cup shoyu
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup mirin
In a five-quart Dutch oven, sauté the four fresh vegetables with non-stick spray. Once the vegetables have softened, combine the last four ingredients and add to the Dutch oven. When it begins to simmer, add the first three ingredients and the tofu. Simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes adding extra water if necessary.
The Wonder Jelly
It’s easy to incorporate this “magic” jelly into a variety of dishes, and the best part is that it’s totally guilt free. With a pleasing contrasting texture to fresh ingredients, negligible calories and a variety of shapes to complement any dish, konnyaku should be a regular ingredient in your home cooking. Just remember to keep the peanut butter in the bottle.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.