The Miracle Noodle
My experiment with shirataki, the zero-calorie pasta from Japan.
I carefully took a bite. The only flavor came from the added ingredients: The taste of the noodles is negligible, and they lack the sweet, earthy note you get with properly cooked spaghetti. The texture, however, is not negligible. The noodles do share much in common with pasta: They have the same toothsome al dente quality, meaning you need to bite down a bit to chew them. They have the same squiggly, bendy, pliable mouth-feel too. But when you do bite down, the noodles burst into pieces rather than mashing together. They have more snap and rubber to them. The texture is somewhat gelatinous.
It is pasta; it is not pasta. The noodles are the same, and yet different. The feeling is of recognition and alienation, attraction and repulsion. Freud called it Das Unheimliche—the uncanny. I have never yet found another foodstuff to cause cognitive dissonance, and yes I have eaten a Chicken McNugget. Reeling a little bit, I spat the first bite out.
I thought I might just have to acclimate myself: Don’t think of them as pasta, I said, standing by the sink, think of them as an unusual yam noodle from Japan. But the curious taint never went away. The pasta tasted just like cacio e pepe, but retained its strange foreign character. I could not down them unthinkingly, like I could with even the worst bowl of normal spaghetti.
Before nausea could creep into the picture, I decided to prepare the remainder of the noodles in less-familiar preparations than that Roman classic. Calorie-avoiding cooks on the Internet recommended Asian-flavored preparations—supplanting the shirataki for other Japanese yam noodles, or using them like the Vietnamese use vermicelli. So I made two quick sauces. First up, a simple concoction of mirin and soy with fresh ginger and garlic. I let the noodles marinate in the sauce for a few minutes, trying to soften them and to get them to take on the taste of the other ingredients. Alas, the miracle noodles did not take up much liquid. They never changed color or texture, remaining slimy and firm. I ate only a bite of that one.
Then came a heavier preparation—soy, sesame oil, garlic, peanuts, and lots of chili. I put some of the noodles in the fridge before tossing them with the oily, sticky sauce, hoping they might be less strange to chew when cool. The noodles stiffened more than regular pasta would have, though the strands did not stick together. The impostors seemed more like impostors, not less. Thrown in a hot pan like stir-fry, though, the dish kind of worked. Shirataki do not absorb flavors around them, but they also do not break up or clump. Toss with lots of vegetables and perhaps a protein, and you might just have yourself dinner.
That lesson is the important part of eating shirataki, though not one they tell you on the package: It is not pasta, and any attempt to eat it like pasta will just leave you feeling queasy. So dieters dying for something, anything noodle-like, have at it with gleeful abandon! Everybody else, well, you might just want to eat a little less of the real thing. I wish I had, though my dinner could not have been more than a few hundred strange calories.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.