The Miracle Noodle
My experiment with shirataki, the zero-calorie pasta from Japan.
In the past decade, pasta has slowly disappeared from many American plates, banished for its starchy carbo-load along with bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, and corn. But what if dieters could have as much delicious pasta as they wanted? And what if this pasta not only came carb-free, but calorie-free?
That is the heady promise of a little-known Japanese noodle called shirataki, much beloved and whispered about among the ketosis-obsessed. “These miracle noodles will quickly fill you up, and keep you that way all day,” one partisan writes. (Does she eat them for breakfast?) “I love them! They are so low in calories and so filling that it makes me feel secure just to know that if I'm hungry, I have those in the refrigerator,” crows another. Hungry Girl, the Pepto-pink diet blog, swears by them too. It was a marathon-runner-type who tipped me off to shirataki, having read an endorsement on a Dukan Diet blog.
But could these claims possibly be true? Is there really a calorie-free, guilt-free pasta out there for those of us who try to avoid eating too much of the real stuff?
To find out, I purchased three kinds of shirataki: Miracle Noodle, JFC Noodles, and No Oodles. The JFC noodles come in plain, Japanese-character-adorned packaging. The other two brands are heartily marketed to starving women and make bold promises: “no guilt,” “healthy,” “zero calories,” “miracle”! As good as pasta and good for your diet, they swear.
The packages arrived in the mail and indeed, the calorie count listed on the back is—amazingly, prominently—zero. The noodles are made from konjac yams, processed to be edible but indigestible. You can eat them, but your body extracts no nutrition from them at all. (To wit: In the United States, the same fiber is given to treat constipation, and apparently, in Japan, they’re known as a “broom for the stomach.”)
Holding the package in my hand, I recognized that something about them was, well, off. They look just like ramen. But the noodles are suspended in a gel pack, heavier than it looks, filled with a thin, clear goo. To prepare shirataki to eat, you pour the goo into a colander and rinse. The smell is faint, but distinctive: a slight hint of shellfish, or dog food made with fish, or perhaps feeding time at an aquarium. My stomach started to turn—I blasted them with the hose in my sink. As the instructions ordered, I gave them a quick bath in boiling water, and then patted them dry with paper towels. I smelled gingerly. Nothing except for the paper towel smell.
First up, I tried one of my favorite pasta dishes, cacio e pepe. I warmed butter and olive oil in a pan on the stovetop, and added a palm of fresh-ground black pepper and flaked chili. In went the noodles, which I then tossed with heaps of salty pecorino cheese. It smelled, as it always smells, warm and rich. The glossy noodles twirled on the fork just like regular pasta, the cheese and the pepper clinging to them.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.