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April 6, 2021
Stop Putting Konjac In a Corner

The plant may be a key ingredient in diet-friendly “miracle noodles,” but its bouncy, jelly-like texture is capable of enhancing soups, fruit jellies, boba, and so much more.

In 2011, Slate published a profile of shirataki, a fat-free, low-carb Japanese noodle gaining popularity in the United States at the time. The author, Annie Lowrey, had experimented with cooking the neutrally flavored noodles in a cacio e pepe and in a few Asian-style stir-fries but, ultimately, she was not convinced. “The feeling is of recognition and alienation, attraction and repulsion,” Lowrey wrote. In the end, the noodle could not overcome its “strange foreign character.” At the time, this was startlingly common language among curious bloggers who took to the web to discuss the so-called “diet pasta.”

In other circles, these noodles are loved for their delightfully chewy texture and for their ability to take on any flavor; properties derived from konjac, a plant in the taro and yam family cultivated in the tropical climates of Indonesia and southern China, as well as the more temperate hills of central Japan. The plant contains a flavorless soluble fiber that can absorb up to 200 times its weight and is an excellent emulsifier. As a result, konjac can be processed into a wide array of foods with all sorts of jelly-like textures: loaf-shaped slabs that can be slipped into simmering stocks, remarkably absorbing the flavors of a spicy beef tallow hot pot broth or an umami-rich dashi. Popular konjac fruit jellies are flavored with perfumy lychee or sweet peach syrups with a smooth, wobbly texture. Sichuan chile-oil-soaked snacks have a gelatinous crunch, like beef tendon but without the beef. Konjac is so versatile, it can be delicious no matter what your definition of deliciousness might be.

Beyond the empty promises of low-carb cacio e pepe or a virtuous risotto, there is an ever more compelling world of delightful carnal pleasure to explore.

But what makes the noodles and other unironically named “plant-based” pasta replacements so popular in Westernized diet culture is the fact that konjac contains hardly any carbohydrates and zero fat—even though it looks and cooks like traditional high-carb foods. The messaging is rooted in the notion of sinful indulgence: “If it tastes good, it must be bad.” But if it tastes good and it’s also not bad for you, well, then it’s a miracle. It’s a losing proposition, that contrived paradise of having your cake and eating it, too, but it doesn’t have to be. Konjac is so much more than diet food. Beyond the empty promises of low-carb cacio e pepe or a virtuous risotto, there is an ever more compelling world of delightful carnal pleasure to explore.

Konjac has been known as a health food in East Asia for millennia. In texts recording Chinese herbal medicine practices from as far back as two thousand years ago—a precursor to Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM)—a gel made from konjac was a recommended treatment for digestive diseases and respiratory ailments. As Buddhism spread beyond China, so did these early beliefs. This is likely how konjac arrived in Japan in the sixth century—as a medicinal herb carried by Buddhist monks. By the 18th century, a method to process konjac into a powder was discovered, which made storage possible and, in turn, encouraged distribution, accessibility, and experimentation.

Considering its history as an ancient medicine, even the most indulgent contemporary konjac creations maintain an aura of healthiness across a very diverse East Asian diaspora. And yet health is often not the primary motivation in eating konjac. “We don’t really eat it because its zero calorie, it’s just really a traditional food,” said Gillian Hu, a native of Yunnan, one of konjac’s indigenous growing regions. One of Hu’s favorite ways to prepare konjac is to slice the firm, processed jelly into slivers and stir-fry it, like tofu, with chives, chiles, and soy sauce. It’s a dish she learned from her father. Hu’s love for konjac may stem from its familiarity, but it is sustained because of something else—its pleasing texture.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s not something that just dissolves in your mouth like Jell-O. It’s texturally more exciting.”

In Chinese, the word “kŏugăn,” which translates to “mouthfeel,” corresponds to an appreciation of texture. Of konjac’s myriad textures, perhaps the most famous is that inimitable elasticity known as Qtán, or Q. In Taiwan, Q is everywhere—from the bounce of freshly pounded rice cake to the chew of taro bubbles suspended in tea. Vivian Ku is the chef and owner of three Taiwanese restaurants in Los Angeles—Pine & Crane, Joy, and a breakfast pop-up called Today Starts Here. “Different cultures have different preferences when it comes to texture,” Ku says. She recalls the texture of konjac snacks she ate growing up, from rough jerky to bubble tea jellies. “It’s very rewarding. It’s not something that just dissolves in your mouth like Jell-O. It’s texturally more exciting,” she says. While konjac might still be loosely associated with traditional medicine, it has definitively jumped into the realm of snacking and fun, thanks in part to its kŏugăn.

In Japan, konjac (or konnyaku) is similarly celebrated as a traditional ingredient that is both wholesome and delightful. In fact, there’s an entire theme park dedicated to the ingredient in Gunma prefecture, Japan’s top konjac growing region, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet serving things like konjac yakisoba and konjac tempura.

Haruna Endo is a konjac farmer in Gunma working to preserve the disappearing art of handmade konjac through her company, Kasho. Endo uses the phrase “mochi-mochi” to describe the texture of her artisanal creations, like hand-rolled konjac balls and thinly sliced konjac sashimi. “It is a unique Japanese adjective that means chewy but good texture. It is used to describe boba, mochi, and good-quality konnyaku,” she wrote in an email.

Still, diet culture is universal, and low-calorie konjac jelly pouches are as ubiquitous throughout East Asia as they are internationally. Even Endo sells a line of diet-friendly drinking jellies made with local apple juice. But in place of the “guilt-free” taglines found on Westernized diet products, these konjac snacks are more likely to promise pleasure via taste and texture, and, ultimately, satisfaction. In Endo’s online shop, she focuses first on describing the “touching softness” and “irresistible texture” of her products. “I think it’s a delicious food rather than a healthy food,” she adds.

In recent years, the United States has begun to recognize konjac’s industrial potential—in mock meat (it was a binder in the Impossible Burger’s original recipe from 2016), in vegan lipstick (as a moisturizer), and even in diapers (it’s very, very absorbent). In the kitchen, there’s still so much more to explore.

Admittedly, for people managing diabetes or celiac disease, shirataki noodles and other carb-free konjac products can feel miraculous. But beyond their health attributes, getting to know these slithery noodles and wobbly jellies is about the elemental pleasures of enjoying food; it’s about joy. When you strip away the guilt-ridden diet language, konjac, and its limitless possibilities, is actually pretty wonderful. Just embrace the sensation and delight in the satiation—let the cake be a cake.

Mahira Rivers

Mahira Rivers is a freelance restaurant critic and food writer in New York. She was previously an anonymous inspector for the Michelin Guides in North America. More recently, she has contributed to The New York Times’ Hungry City column, reviewing New York City’s great unsung restaurants.