Trying to explain Konnyaku to somebody who has never tried it is a little bit like trying to describe the feeling of walking on sand to somebody who has never been to the beach: you can say all the right words and still fail to convey the experience.
Konnyaku really is a unique substance. When you handle it, it’s easy to imagine you are dealing with some exotic product of food science: this kind of texture just doesn’t seem that “natural” at first glance. And yet there’s nothing artificial about konnyaku, nor is it particularly intensively processed: it’s just a gel made from konjac corm flour, water, and a bit of limewater. In fact, the recipe is essentially unchanged over the last 1450 years.
The gray, glutinous, jelly-like substance that results has only the faintest of tastes, so in the end konnyaku tastes like whatever sauce you add to it. And attention dieters: konnyaku is, essentially, calorie-free. Basically, all you’re eating is dietary fiber suspended in a water-based gel. Not surprisingly, nutritionists are enamored with this stuff.
As for that texture, well, the one thing I can say for sure is that it strikes foreigners as deeply weird. Imagine what would happen if jell-o grew a backbone! Konyaku is much firmer than gelatin, but still soft, slippery and delicious. It’s the kind of thing everybody should try at least once.
In this recipe, we suspend it in some very lightly seasoned scrambled eggs, to produce a delicate side dish you can make in just a few minutes. Serve it to guests and dare them to guess what they’re eating!
You want to talk about silly-sounding literal translations? Umani comes out as “delicious boiled thing”. Which pretty much tells the tale of this simple, unfussy dish which brings together several of Japan’s favorite vegetables with just a little bit of chicken for flavor. The vegetables – which include the delicious, potato-like taro roots – are chosen not just for their flavors but also for their colors: umani must have those orange carrots and bright green beans to keep it from looking like prison food.
One great thing about umani is that it scales up easily: you can just double or triple the portions below to feed more people. For this reason, it’s a typical choice when you have a lot of guests or in big family occasions.
As is usual with these kinds of recipes, there are any number of variations on umani. In a professional kitchen, you would cook each of the vegetables separately – but that’s far too much trouble for home cooking. It hardly needs pointing out that each family will vary the composition of the dish slightly to suit its taste.
This recipe is the version my mom used to make. It tastes like home.