Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shirataki 101:  What the Hell Are They, Where Do I Get Them, and How Do I Use Them?

What They Are

Shirataki noodles are a traditional Asian noodle, perhaps best known as the noodle traditionally used in the Japanese dish sukiyaki.  Shirataki noodles are made not from starch, but from a soluble fiber known in Asia as konyakku or konjac, known in America as glucomannan, a thickener similar in principle to xanthan or guar gum.  “Plain” shirataki noodles are translucent; some shirataki have soy added, and these have a more ordinary beige noodle appearance.  Shirataki come in various pasta shapes.  Personally, I prefer House Brand Tofu Shirataki, as in my opinion it has a better flavor and texture, but there are several brands with or without tofu, if you’re avoiding soy.

Unlike traditional pasta, shirataki are packaged “wet” in plastic packs with water.  Plain shirataki can be stored at room temperature, but soy or “tofu shirataki” must be refrigerated.

The soluble fiber from which shirataki are made is not only extremely low in carbs, but also very healthy – good for improving blood cholesterol as well as controlling blood sugar.  Unlike a lot of low-carb products, you don’t need to limit the use of these.  They’re good and good for you.

What They Aren’t

A “frankenfood.”  Asians have been using shirataki since dirt was young.  They just happen to be naturally low in carbohydrates.  They’re not a fake food, contain no starch, sweeteners or other oddball chemical ingredients.

Exactly like regular pasta.  There’s an old but true saying:  “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”  Shirataki are not wheat-and-egg pasta any more than cauliflower rice is exactly like regular rice, or radishes are exactly like potatoes.  Don’t expect them to be a pasta clone.  If that’s what you want, eat Dreamfields and take your chances with iffy ingredients and processes that may or may not wreck your low-carb way of eating.  However, shirataki can be used like pasta, and they’re delightful on their own merits.  They’re different, not inferior.

Where to Buy Them

If you have a large grocery nearby, see if they carry any shirataki noodles, or ask if they will.  I’m fortunate in that the Meijer across the street carries the House Brand Tofu Shirataki that I like.

Oriental or international groceries very frequently carry shirataki of some kind.  If they do, this is probably your best bargain.

Buying shirataki online is the easiest option, but also the most expensive.  Because of their water packs, shirataki are heavy and shipping can be pricey.  Nevertheless, I’ll list a few online sources.  Very comprehensive site with lots of good information about shirataki, recipes and so forth.  They carry plain shirataki in a wide variety of shapes.  This online Asian grocery carries both plain and tofu shirataki at decent prices.  Another very comprehensive site, carrying plan Miracle Noodle brand shirataki in various shapes.  A low-carb-specific site carrying both Miracle Noodle brand and House Brand shirataki.  Just a word here.  For some reason, you can’t order a 10-pack of the House Brand Tofu Shirataki macaroni shape at this site, but, bizarrely, you can order the 10-pack from them via Amazon.  Go figure.  If you’re buying other low-carb products at the same time, this is a reasonable place to buy.  Carries only the Miracle Noodle plain shirataki, but if this is what you want, Netrition may be your best source because of their cheap $4.95 flat rate shipping.  Carries numerous brands and shapes.  If you’re getting a type eligible for Amazon Prime shipping, and you have a Prime membership, this is an easy and reliable way to go.  Also carries the Miracle Noodle brand.  If you’re buying supplements at the same time, this may be an affordable and easy way to go.

How to Prep Them

As stated above, shirataki come packaged in a plastic water pack.  Put a colander in the sink, cut open the bag and dump the noodles into the colander.  Rinse thoroughly (or the noodles may have an “off” taste from their time in the pack).

If you have spaghetti, fettucini or other long shapes and you want them shorter, drain the noodles, place them on a cutting board and chop them with a chef’s knife.  They’re very difficult to cut with your knife and fork on your plate in sauce.

Technically, shirataki noodles can be eaten right out of the pack, but I find that it’s preferable to do some precooking.  The goal here is twofold:  First, to improve the texture of the noodles; and second, to get rid of some of the water in the noodles so they don’t “sweat” it out into your sauce.  There are three techniques for doing this:

Boil ‘em.  Put the noodles in boiling salted water and cook for about five minutes.  Drain thoroughly before using.  This is probably the fastest method and is good when you’re going to use the noodles in a “wet” context, such as a soup.  You can also boil the noodles right in the stock or broth if you like.

Fry ‘em.  Put shirataki noodles in a dry nonstick skillet over high heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles stop “sweating” liquid and reduce slightly in size.  This method, in my opinion, produces the best results if you’re going to serve the noodles in a sauce that might be damaged by the noodles “sweating” liquid, like an Alfredo sauce.  It cooks the most liquid out of the noodles, so they absorb more of whatever sauce you serve them with.

Simmer ‘em.  If you’re making a long-cooking noodle dish, like, for example, beef and noodles, put the noodles in and slow cook them right along with everything else.  This is one of the big advantages of shirataki noodles:  Unlike regular pasta, they will never get mushy.  No matter how long you cook them or how often you reheat them, they only get better.

How to Use Them

Shirataki can be used in pretty much any context you would use regular noodles.  They make incredible beef and noodles or chicken and noodles.  They work in stir-fries, macaroni and cheese, shrimp scampi, seafood alfredo, pesto sauce, with a simple butter, garlic and black pepper toss or browned butter and grated myzithra cheese.  Not to mention all kinds of soups or cold pasta salads.  Shirataki pad thai is excellent, too.

Oddly enough, I’ve never made sukiyaki.

Personally, I’m not fond of shirataki with tomato sauce.  For some reason it just doesn’t work for me.  Part of it may be that since I started low carbing, I’ve limited my tomato sauce intake because of the carbs in the sauce, and that much tomato sauce in one mouthful overwhelms me.  Now, I’ve made a tomato cream sauce, I’ve made shirataki tossed with garlic, asiago and sun-dried tomatoes, and those were great, but traditional spaghetti and tomato sauce?  Not so much.

Many of the sites above where shirataki noodles can be purchased have recipe collections.  Type in “shirataki recipes” on Google and you’ll get plenty of hits.  Better yet, just experiment in dishes where you used to use traditional pasta.  Get creative.  Have fun!

That’s what low carbing is all about, after all.

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