The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.
I’ve been craving these jellies for ages and went hunting for them this weekend, certain that with globe-trotting food trends, I’d find them sitting pretty next to the Taiwanese bubble tea hut, or the Korean fro-yo stand. But several jelly-less hours later, I was forced to concede that not only are these jellies nowhere near as popular as they are in Asia, they aren’t available at all! What gives?
Konnyaku jellies are a wobbly, vegan treat made from the starchy root of the konjac plant, a yamlike tuber that’s also called devil's tongue, voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam. When flavored with hijiki seaweed and sans sugar, konnyaku plays a laudable role in Japanese hotpots or oden.
Low in calories, zero fat and carbs, a measly 0.1 grams of protein per 100 grams of jelly, and high in fiber, it’s also highly recommended for diabetics because it minds its P’s and Q’s and doesn’t spike sugar levels. You’d imagine this to be one of those diet food fads or vile sports bar-type chalk. But konnyaku has been cultivated in Japan for over 400 years—way before the Atkins craze made it a fave among dieters.
My initial guess as to their no-show was "texture issues"—maybe the pleasantly chewy "QQ-ness," so prized in Asian treats like Japanese mochi, Korean dduk, and Chinese muah chee is not in favor here. But the streams of college kids passing me by, popping mochi bonbons (mochi wrapped ice cream) and munching on perfectly “QQ” tapioca pearls in their bubble tea made that unlikely.
Woefully jelly-less, I made my way home and decided to seek advice from a divine source.
Google did not fail me. It seems sales of these delectable jellies have been banned in the States because they are considered a choking hazard. The FDA has ruled that young children and the elderly are likely to cram them down whole, so no one gets jellies. If you ask me, those oversized gumballs and jaw breakers are way more hazardous, but hey, I’m no expert.
Fortunately, though you can’t buy the jellies pre-jellied, you can get konnyaku powder in convenient sachets at Asian groceries. A basic recipe calls for sugar and hot water. Fancier ones substitute fruit juice, green tea, coconut nectar (not milk), or even yogurt for the water. Almost all will give you carte blanche with add-ins. I used grapes here, but canned lychees and kiwi fruit are nice too. And cranberries would be really pretty for those who like a sour hit in their jellies.
The best thing about konnyaku is that it's tasteless on its own, so the flavor profile of the end product is limited only by your imagination. Also, I’ve never had them stick, ever. So go nuts with the molds—funky-shaped ice cube trays work well, as do the inexpensive plastic molds usually sold with konnyaku powder in the shape of cherry blossoms, chrysanthemum flowers, roses, leaves, etc. Tint them whatever shade you like. Oh, and I've saved the best news for last: unlike jello and other gelatin-based desserts, konnyaku stands up remarkably well to heat, and will not come to a sorry end à la the Wicked Witch of the West even if it's left out in the sun. Say hi to spring!
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.