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.
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.