There are tanuki (raccoon dogs) in Japan. They are not raccoons, but apparently they can be just as mischievious as the raccoons in my garden. They are beloved in Japanese culture: statues of them are found outside Japanese temples, signifying good luck with big bellies and a cup of sake in hand. Even so, in olden days, they featured as a main ingredient in soup. Today, konnyaku is a substitute for the chewy meat.
Konnyaku was traditionally made from raw ground up konjac corms. Kannyaku taro grows on well-drained slopes in high mountain where there is lots of rain and great temperature variation between night and day. When the plant is about three years old, it bears a large purple trumpet flower (devil’s tongue). When the roots are dug up, they average about six inches in diameter and average five pounds each. The roots are cleaned, peeled, sliced, dried, and ground to a powder. The powder is combined with water and the coagulating agent hydrated calcium (limewater). The set gelatin is cooked in boiling water and cooled. The cakes are grey. Modern automation produces white cakes, which are sometimes colored with hijiki or arame sea vegetable. Sometimes flavor additives like powdered nori or yuzu rind are also added.
A big block of konnyaku has only about 10 calories (97% water), but it’s rich in dietary fiber (3%) in the form of a viscous substance called glucomannan, plus some traces of protein, starch and minerals. It’s very filling, and a few years ago it was part of a fad diet in Japan. It’s been called a ‘broom for the stomach’ (胃のほうき). Ms. Shimbo notes that her mother called this soup a cleaning agent for the digestive system. It has virtually no flavor either, but is enjoyed for its rubbery texture.
Sealed in its package, konnyaku keeps in the refrigerator for two months after the date of manufacture. Once the package is opened, konnyaku should be consumed within a few days.
Rectangular blocks of konnyaku, packed in plastic bags with water, are sometimes called “yam cakes.” They are white, grey, or brown. Sometimes I find them shaped as marble-sized balls and these are intended for hot pots. Shirataki are noodles made by slicing the konnyaku into long threads. Sashimi konnyaku comes in a square package, cut into thin slices, with a packet of sweet miso sauce.
Racoon Miso Soup
- 1 konnyaku (taro gelatin) cake
- 2 1/2 Tablespoons sesame oil, divided
- vegetables julienned 2″ by 1/4″ by 1/4″
- 1/2 cup gobo or tunip
- 1/2 cup daikon
- 1/2 cup carrot
- 3 cups dashi (Japanese fish stock)
- 2 scallions, the white part cut into 1-inch lengths,
green part cut into thin rings
- 2 Tablespoons akamiso (brown miso)
- 1/2 Tablespoon shiromiso (white miso)
- Sansho pepper or ground black pepper
In a medium pot of boiling water, parboil the taro gelatin for 2 minutes. Drain it, whipe it dry with a paper towel, and cut it into 2″ by 1/4″ by 1/4″ strips.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add 2 Tablespoons of the sesame oil and the taro gelatin, and cook the gelatin, stirring occasionally, until the outside turns golden and blisters, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.
In a medium pot, put the remaining 12 Tablespoon of sesame oil, and when the oil is hot, add the burdock, daikon, and carrot. Cook, stirring for a minute. Add the dashi, the taro gelatin, and the white part of the scallions, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the miso and stir until it dissolves. Add the green part of the scallions, give a few stirs, and turn off the heat.
Serve the soup sprinkled with a little sansho paper or black pepper.
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