January 23, 2015
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Do You Believe in Miracles?

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Shirataki noodles are carb-free, fat-free and full of fibre . . . .

Do you believe in miracle noodles?

I won’t lie. Eating shirataki can make me feel like I am consuming a science experiment. But they are called miracle noodles for good reason – and worth a leap of faith in the kitchen. Shirataki are vegan, fibre-filled, fat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, practically carb-free and tantalizingly close to calorie-free.

Just don’t call them guilt-free, please. I don’t believe in feeling guilty about eating. It’s as basic as breathing. We all gotta eat. The question is “Eat what?” Now that December indulgence season has morphed into January resolution season, the answer is “shirataki.”

       Spicy brown shirataki noodles. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

This Is Not Pasta

Shirataki are manufactured from an Asian tuber called konjac. The taste and texture are foreign to Western palates. The key to learning to love shirataki is to accept it on its own merits. Repeat to yourself: This is not pasta! I was skeptical about these noodles at first, but grew fonder as I experimented with shirataki dishes. The hilariously low calorie counts sealed the deal.

  • Say no to pasta dishes. There is a cadre of shirataki enthusiasts who share a common delusion that these noodles are pasta substitutes. They breathlessly endorse the use of shirataki in everything from spaghetti bolognese to mac & cheese. Forget that nonsense. No matter how much you may wish it true or proclaim it so, shirataki are nothing like wheat noodles made with flour and water. Give up the struggle.
  • Say yes to Asian dishes, soups and composed salads. Shirataki are more akin to rice noodles or bean threads (made from mung beans). Once you embrace that, you are off to a good start. For the ultimate delicious introduction to shirataki, make Sukiyaki. Shirataki noodles are the signature ingredient in this classic Japanese hot pot.

Get cooking with these foolproof recipes: Shichimi Shirataki, Green Onion Shirataki, Shirataki Kinpira, Pan-Asian Shirataki Noodle Bowl, Shirataki Beef Noodle Soup, Shrimp & Shirataki Salad, Sukiyaki Hot Pot.

       Low-carb, low-cal salad plate with shrimp and shirataki.

Five Steps To Perfect Shirataki

Technically, shirataki are ready to eat after a quick rinse. But you won’t want to eat them that way. What shirataki enthusiasts don’t talk about upfront:

  • The bad first impression. They reek. You have to blanch shirataki to get rid of what one manufacturer diplomatically calls the “authentic aroma.” Consumers are more brutal; they have compared the scent to fish and gym socks. This odor is the result of natural fermentation, and in the case of brown shirataki, the addition of seaweed.
  • The bad second impression. Shirataki are beyond bland, and so rubbery that I feared the noodles would snap back in my face like rubber bands.

Don’t worry. I’ll tell you how to get past all that. On the plus side, shirataki are gelatinous and soft, yet surprisingly springy and sturdy. It is hard to overcook them; they never seem to get mushy.

To wrestle shirataki into submission, follow these steps.

1. Rinse: Drain the package. Then rinse, rinse and rinse, longer than you might think you should, using cold, running water. Drain well.

2. Par-cook: There are three ways to par-cook shirataki.

  • Boil them. Dunk shirataki in boiling, salted water. When water returns to the boil, cook 1 minute. Drain. Boiling gets rid of the fishy odor most effectively.
  • Microwave them. The time depends on the amount. I find that 3 minutes on high power works for 8 oz (250 g) of shirataki.
  • Dry-fry them. Heat shirataki in a non-stick skillet on high heat until they sound squeaky when stirred. The time depends on the amount. I find that 3 minutes works for 8 oz (250 g). Dry-frying is the least effective way to get rid of the fishy odor.

3. Air-dry: Spread out shirataki on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Dry thoroughly.

4. Cut: If the strands are loooong (and they usually are), cut them into manageable lengths.

5. Cook: Toss shirataki noodles with sauce/dressing, stir-fry, or add them to soup or stew. Shirataki are bland and not very absorbent, so opt for bold flavours and cook them as long as you want to.

Optional: After cutting and before cooking, shirataki may be marinated or soaked in sauce overnight to absorb flavours.

Shopping For Shirataki

Mainstream supermarkets have jumped on the shirataki bandwagon. However, Asian grocery stores have the best selection and many (confusing) varieties. They may be labeled string konjac, konnyaku threads/noodles, diet noodles, jelly noodles, miracle noodles, yam noodles or Pasta Zero (a brand name from the Nasoya company).

       Traditional brown shirataki with seaweed added.
       A plate of traditional white shirataki.

Two main types:

  • Traditional shirataki noodles are extruded from processed konjac – a tuber more widely known here by its Japanese name, konnyaku. The noodles may be white or brown/black. The latter are actually beige or light brown with dark brown speckles, due to the addition of brown seaweed such as arame or hijiki. The types I tried had 1 to 2 calories per ounce.
  • Tofu shirataki are manufactured from tofu and konjac flour. They are a modern creation, and may be labeled tofu noodles. I call them entry-level shirataki. They have more carbs and calories than traditional shirataki, and a shorter shelf life, but the milder taste and resilient texture appeal more to the North American palate. The types I tried had 5 to 10 calories per ounce.

Traditional and tofu shirataki are interchangeable in recipes. Around the world, they are sold wet or dry, in packages and cans. But in these parts, shirataki come in small plastic packages or bags filled with noodles and water. When cooking, note that package weights usually include the water, while recipes go by the weight of the noodles alone (drained). Some 10% to 20% of a package may be water weight. To store an opened, drained package, put shirataki noodles in a storage tub, cover them with water, seal, and replace the water every couple of days.

As for shapes, “shirataki” means “white waterfall” in Japanese. Tangled masses of very long, thin noodles are typical and traditional. But shirataki come in alternate shapes and sizes: linguine, spaghetti, vermicelli/angel hair, macaroni tubes. You can also buy konnyaku slabs and cut your own noodles. A new creation is grain-shaped konnyaku, sold as a rice substitute.

       Tube-shaped tofu shirataki in Asian-style beef noodle soup.

K Is For Konjac & Konnyaku

Shirataki noodles are on the list of odd foods that I puzzle over. How the heck were they ever invented? Who’d think of that?

Shirataki have been popularized in North America in the last decade, perhaps in tandem with the low-carb craze. But konnyaku – whether in noodle or block form – is not a modern marvel. For centuries, it was one of the best kept diet secrets in Asia. Culinary historians say it was first eaten in Japan in the 6th century, as a healthy functional food. The first konnyaku cookbook may have been Konnyaku Hyakusen, an 1846 publication with 100 recipes. In China, meanwhile, this product (known as konjac tofu or snow konjac) was used in Sichuan cuisine as well as traditional Chinese medicine.

The fibrous konjac tuber is native to tropical Asia. If you want to get technical, it is actually a corm – a swollen underground stem. Other common names for it: konjac potato/yam (no relation to real potatoes or yams), konnyaku, gonyak, devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, snake palm, elephant yam, devil’s taro (moyu in Chinese).

Konjac corms are chopped, dried and milled into powder, a.k.a. konnyaku flour. This flour is used in breads and cookies, and as filler in burgers and sausages. It is also used to make vegan imitations of fish, scallops, shrimp and crab. Asian fruit jelly is yet another konjac product. Beware: Konjac forms such a strong jelly that it poses a choking hazard for children and the elderly. In fact, several deaths related to this konjac candy have led to warnings, recalls and bans in North America and Europe.

But konjac/konnyaku flour is best known as the prime ingredient in shirataki noodles. It is mixed with water and calcium hydroxide (a.k.a. pickling lime or slaked lime, a common ingredient in food processing), then formed into gelatinous slabs called konnyaku cakes or yam cakes. These slabs contain mostly water and a gummy fibre called glucomannan, with some protein, starch and minerals. The slabs are boiled and cut. Traditionally, when a slab was cut into strips, the noodles were called ito konnyaku (translated as thread konjac). When the noodles were extruded through small holes, they were known as shirataki. Nowadays, according to online sources, both thread konjac and shirataki are prepared using the extrusion method.

       Shirataki noodles extruded from processed konjac.

G Is For Glucomannan

In the 1960s, Japanese writer Soichi Ohyakeb embarked on a diet, ate too much konnyaku and died of malnutrition. In Japan, konnyaku is described as a  “broom” that “sweeps” the stomach and intestines. It has little actual food value.

The konjac corm is mainly water with glucomannan gum, a soluble fibre, emulsifier and thickener. Glucomannan is an additive in processed foods and nutraceuticals (nutritional supplements for obesity, appetite control, constipation, diabetes, high cholesterol and acne).

Not surprisingly, glucomannan is difficult to digest. With the addition of water, it expands in the stomach and does sweep through the intestines. Bloating and discomfort are possible when eating shirataki. Start slow.