Taste Test: Gluten-Free, Vegan-Friendly Shirataki Noodles
"If you're going to eat these, prepare them in a stir-fry."
Three blobby bags of tofu shirataki noodles sat in my refrigerator. Water-packed tofu-yam noodles for dinner? This would either be surprisingly tasty or a disaster. I just hoped they weren't so bad I ended up using them as cooling packs. I had a fair amount of trepidation toward noodles that were a mere 40 calories per eight-ounce serving. (What does nothing taste like?, I wondered.)
What exactly are tofu shirataki noodles? The main ingredients: tofu and tonnyaku (aka konjac, a high-fiber variety of yam). Their powers combined, you now have tofu shirataki. Offered in spaghetti, fettucine, or angel-hair varieties, I chose to test the former two since I always feel like I'm choking whenever I try angel hair.
Low in carbs, calories, and free of gluten, wheat, and dairy, tofu shirataki noodles are instantly attractive to weight-conscious, gluten-free, and vegan folk. Made famous by Hungry Girl (her endorsement and recipes grace every package from House Foods, the most prominent brand), I've always been curious about noodles seemingly devoid of everything that makes a noodle a noodle.
The instructions on the back of the bag direct you to:
Drain excess water from the noodles and rinse thoroughly. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes or microwave for 1 minute to reduce the authentic aroma. Dry very well and use as you would regular cooked noodles.
You may ask yourself, "Authentic aroma?" Yes, there's a certain... unusual aroma, to say the least. After rinsing the noodles and even after cooking them, they still smell very "authentic." Said "authenticity" is best described as slightly fishy with hints of ammonia. Even though I was warned about the smell, I was still a bit alarmed. I tried both the boiling and microwave methods and recommend the latter; it's about ten times easier and there's no discernible difference in texture.
With three different preparations, there were three big chances for these noodles to prove themselves worthy of a repeat purchase. I decided on a basic tomato sauce, a cream-based sauce, and a stir-fry.
Tomato Sauce with Shrimp
I used the spaghetti variety in the first sauce I made, but surprisingly, they weren't very spaghetti-like at all. In fact, they seemed more ramen-shaped than anything else with the wavy perm they had going on. Either way, my first bite was definitely a strange experience. It's like I bit into a strand and chewed...and kept chewing. The gelatinous texture combined with an absolute lack of flavor from the noodles themselves left us with a bowl of shirataki cherry-picked of shrimp.
Garlic Cream Sauce with Mushrooms and Thyme
The second attempt called for fettucine in a creamy sauce. If anything, this dish was equally bad. There was a pronounced sliminess to the noodles and it was clear that little to no sauce was being absorbed by the fettucine. The dish just emphasized the lack of harmony between the sauce and the noodles. Granted, this isn't meant to be fine cuisine, but I'd like there to be some love between noodle and saucy goodness when I eat. This makes sense since the noodles mainly consist of fiber and so the sauce shouldn't naturally soak up sauce like normal pasta does. However, some cooks do recommend soaking the noodles in the sauce overnight and then eating.
The last ditch attempt at tastiness proved to be the most successful preparation of the three. Here, the integration of sauce and noodle wasn't nearly as crucial. Use bold flavors here because there really is no flavor in these noodles. An added bonus of shirataki noodles are that they really never get mushy, so cook away!
Don't take tofu shirataki noodles as a valid substitute for pasta; they're a completely different entity and should be treated as such. For those with celiac disease or other allergies, I imagine this provides some relief when you're just really craving something, anything, like pasta. For the rest of us, if you're going to eat these, prepare them in a stir-fry. This method downplays the negative elements (i.e., sliminess) while highlighting the never-mushy texture.