One thing that seems to move product off the shelves in any country is the promise of svelteness, slimness, and a Ripped Physique. And in an era where carbs have been villainized, the notion that plants could serve as a replacement for starchy noodles has moved many a mountain of zoodles, courgetti, and spaghetti squash. The latest noodle replacement to gain popularity in the United States: shirataki, a food that’s been consumed in Japan for centuries.
Shirataki come from the root of the konjac plant, which resembles a purple peace lily and is also known as devil’s-tongue or voodoo lily. Because of that, shirataki are a naturally low-carb, low-calorie, and high-fiber noodle. Such descriptors can seem joyless when they are used to sell you on a 1:1 spaghetti replacement (looking at you, packaging for House). But shirataki are absolutely delicious if you treat them right. Like other healthful and delicious foods that have been bullied into the role of a virtuous but tasteless replacement (see: tofu), shirataki are all-stars at absorbing flavors—whether it’s a sauce or a broth. They’re lighter than a starchy noodle and can be enjoyed on their own for a lighter meal or paired with something more substantial.
If you’re new to shirataki, here’s what you need to know.
What are shirataki?
Shirataki, poetically, means “white waterfall” and is the noodle-shaped form of what the Japanese refer to as konnyaku, a product that is derived from the bulb of the konjac plant. Konnyaku the food product (as opposed to the root) is a slippery and chewy mass that is formed by combining the konjac plant root with water. While konnyaku is generally white in color, it’s also often colored a mottled gray with the seaweed hijiki. Then when konnyaku cake is shaped into noodle shapes, it is called shirataki.
It’s available made with just konnyaku starch. However, the shirataki in non-Japanese supermarkets often combine konnyaku starch with trace amounts of tofu, including the prolific brand House. The resulting noodles have more of a standard udon-grade white and are softer in their bite. All forms of konnyaku come packaged in water and have a distinctive saline smell, which is caused by trimethylamine, a naturally occurring compound found in the konjac bulb.
Tofu shirataki are available in thicker (fettuccine) and thinner (angel hair) shapes, while standard non-tofu shirataki are generally available in a thickness similar to that of spaghetti.
How to prepare shirataki
Whether you choose to proceed with tofu shirataki or traditional shirataki, the noodles will be very wet, with a funky saline smell. While they do not technically require cooking, they require a little bit of coaxing to reach their full potential. The first step is to thoroughly rinse them.
Next, because shirataki are very long, make them more manageable by cutting them into halves with your with kitchen shears.
If you’re planning to serve the noodles chilled, blanch the noodles to get rid of the saline taste. If you’re serving the noodles warm, they simply need to be simmered long enough to take on the flavors of whatever cooking liquid that you’re using. Unlike starchy noodles, which can get mealy when cooked for too long, shirataki do not lose their texture so can handle a long simmer.
Whatever you do, you cannot empty a packet of shirataki, douse the shirataki in sauce, and call it dinner. Despite containing no fish, shirataki carry a strong fishy taste, which must be rinsed and replaced with other flavors.
Shirataki shine in Japanese braises and stews with rich broths. Think of dishes like sukiyaki (leeks, shiitake mushrooms, and other vegetables mingle with thin slices of beef in a sweet soy broth) and oden (daikon, carrots, eggs, and fish cakes simmered in a rich dashi). Shirataki will take on the flavors of the broths without losing their chew.
Ideas to get you started
While tofu and non-tofu shirataki varieties can be used interchangeably, below find suggestions for each application below.
Shirataki’s Japanese roots indicate that it adapts excellently to stir-fries, including those that would commonly include a starchier noodle like yakisoba. The advantage of shirataki is that it will never overcook and turn to mush, so err on the side of cooking longer rather than shorter to ensure maximum flavor transfer. Below is one of my go-to preparations, where I use tofu fettuccine shirataki for its thicker texture:
Slice an onion (or some alliums of your choice) and sauté with julienned carrots, sliced cabbage, and mushrooms. Season with salt to taste. At this stage, drain and rinse one package of shirataki and add it to the pan. The shirataki will release quite a lot of liquid, as they are stored in water, so take a minute to cook off the liquid until the pan is dry. Add a tablespoon of sake, a teaspoon of soy sauce (or more to taste), and continue cooking until the shirataki has absorbed the seasonings. Fry an egg on the side to top your dish and finish with a final scattering of bonito flakes. Feel free to play with the seasoning; this is also delicious with Worcestershire instead of soy.
While it is classic to add shirataki to dishes like sukiyaki and oden, the noodles can also be adapted to other dishes where you would want to add texture to a flavorful broth. I recommend using classic (non-tofu) shirataki for its more toothsome texture in such applications. For example, you can even use shirataki in a tomato sauce, as long as you take care to simmer the drained and rinsed shirataki in the sauce for at least five minutes so that it can absorb the flavors.
As much as shirataki is a dish best enjoyed simmered with other flavors, they also adapt marvelously to cold preparations because they’re so delightfully slippery and silky. For this style, use the thinner tofu spaghetti shirataki so that the dressing can more easily season the noodles. After you have blanched shirataki for at least one minute in hot water, drain and cool the shiratak by rinsing them in cold water. Now top the shirataki with ingredients of your choice, such as kimchi, julienned cucumber, poached egg, nori, and sesame dressing; wasabi, grated ginger, wakame, and mentsuyu (a dashi-based soup base); or sliced radishes, natto, ponzu, and a scattering of sesame seeds.
Once you get a taste of a thoroughly seasoned shirataki strand, there really is no turning back. Diets are fickle, but shirataki is a constant.
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