Ingredient Spotlight: Ita Konnyaku

We recently hosted a grilling potluck, and among the foods left by our friends (we couldn't get to everything in one meal!) was a package of ita konnyaku. We had tried konnyaku at restaurants and seen it in Japanese markets but had never really stopped to think about what it is, or how to use it at home. Are you familiar with this ingredient?

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Ita konnyaku is a Japanese food made from the starch of a tuber called konjac or devil's tongue. It is sometimes referred to as konjac cake or yam cake, although konjac is unrelated to true yams. To form cakes or blocks, konjac starch is mixed with calcium hydroxide or lime water. (Konjac starch is also used to make noodles, called shirataki, and jelly desserts.) The plain versions of ita konnyaku are white or gray in color, and seaweed is often added to make a darker, saltier variety. More colorful types may include flavoring from vegetables, citrus, or chile peppers.

Plain ita konnyaku has no distinctive flavor of its own and is used more for its texture, which is like a firm, chewy gelatin. Like tofu, konnyaku can also absorb the flavors of ingredients it is cooked with. Slices of ita konnyaku are traditionally simmered with oden and other stews, stir-fried with meat and vegetables, grilled, or served with dipping sauces. Because konnyaku is calorie-free and rich in fiber, it is often considered a health or diet food. It also shows up as a filling meat alternative in vegetarian meals; Zen priests ate konnyaku as early as the 1100s.

Up until now, we have generally eaten konnyaku in its plain, sliced form and must admit it isn't our favorite dish (although it is refreshing for summer). However, we are curious to follow our friend's suggestion and grill slices with a miso-based sauce and sesame seeds. Here are a few other recipes, and we'd love to hear any readers' suggestions!

Konnyaku and Atsuage (Tofu) Kinpira, from Just Hungry
Konnyaku no miso ni (konnyaku simmered with miso), from Obachan's Kitchen
Creamy Tofu Sauce for Sweet Potatoes and Konnyaku, from Serious Eats
Gyuudon (beef bowl) bento with konnyaku, from Just Bento

Find blocks of ita konnyaku packed in water in the refrigerated section of Japanese markets. To use, open the package (a fishy odor is normal), drain, and rinse under cool water. Parboil before cooking or serving. Any unused portion may be covered with fresh water and stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

Related: Ingredient Spotlight: Dried Kombu

(Images: Emily Ho, House Foods America)

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Emily Ho is a Los Angeles-based writer, recipe developer, and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food, and herbalism. She is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and Food Swap Network. Learn more at Roots & Marvel

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