Desperation is the mother of invention.
It happened in the evening, after attending another of Heather Jeong’s convivial, highly educational and useful Korean cooking classes at the Korean Cultural Office.
The star of this lesson was Korean imperial cuisine. I was hooked by the “imperial” bit.
Confession: I have an unhealthy interest in royalty, thanks to a Singaporean childhood of watching Hongkong period dramas of exquisitely dressed princesses when I was 7, culminating in sitting through Charles and Diana’s televised royal wedding with my mum when I was 9.
Those jewels! Those gowns! Oh!
Back to the kitchen. We learnt to make tang pyung chae, a savoury bean jelly tossed in a non-spicy dressing with beef and fried vegetables. It is a refined dish, designed to cleanse the royal palate in between punchier courses.
- Soy sauce + Korean sesame oil = The way to my stomach and heart.
- I have a soft spot for firm jelly in savoury dishes. Search me, I don’t know where I got that from…didn’t grow up eating it.
- Throw in toasted Korean seaweed that packs an umami punch, and you get a dish that is my undoing.
To cut a long story short, I polished off my cooking class handiwork at dinner, and was desperate for more.
But it was too late to go shopping. So I made do with what I had in the kitchen, and created something that was inspired by Heather’s savoury bean jelly dish.
That warranted a sassier dressing. I used Korean chili powder together with stronger-tasting Chinese black vinegar, both of which weren’t in the savoury bean jelly.
Konnyaku is a rubbery vegetarian jelly used in savoury Japanese cooking like stews.
It is nothing if not versatile; in a traditional restaurant in Kyoto, I even had it as a vegetarian sashimi, complete with soy sauce and wasabi.
In Sydney, I buy konnyaku from Asian supermarkets, in a little 250g block that looks like this.
It is made from the konjac potato (with charming aliases of devil’s tongue and voodoo lily) that looks like this.
Konnyaku is apparently a favourite slimming food of Japanese women. With water as its main component, it has very few calories: 18 cal/100g for the one I used, with other brands being as low as 7 cal/100g. Its other major component is glucomannan, a fibre that expands in the stomach to make you feel full. Slimming effect or no, the key attraction for me remains the taste…or rather, the texture.
The Japanese nicknamed konnyaku “Broom of the Stomach”, because it cleans out one’s small intestines. Okay, enough of that.
Konnyaku is as tasteless as Ford’s unauthorised advertisement. Or so many websites would have you believe.
They are right about the taste. But nobody seems to mention the slight whiff.
The speckled brown konnyaku I like to use has a subtle fishy smell. So, before I cut it, I always give it a good rinse and rub. (You can be quite rough when handling it, because it’s a tough little cookie…er, jelly.)
In a large piece, konnyaku is rubbery and unwieldy in the mouth. A bit like chewing a child’s eraser.
So far, so appetising, right? But don’t change channels yet, I know a great way to eat konnyaku.
A tender spot for textures
Regular readers will know I have a penchant for different textures.
One remarkable thing about the salad below is the way the texture of bouncy konnyaku noodles echoes that of the springy shiitake mushrooms. I. Love. It.
Slim ribbons of konnyaku are so slippery that you can make a new sport of slurping at speed. Try it, it’s fun! Konnyaku noodles slide in faster than any spaghetti strand could dream of doing.
Another wonderful thing about using konnyaku strips in a salad is precisely their slippery texture. This means they won’t clump together, unlike proper boiled noodles.
My Korean-Japanese fusion salad (vegetarian)
Serves 4 as a starter. (See Tip #1 below.)
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- ½ tsp grated ginger
- 1 dessertspoon Chinese black vinegar (pictured right)
- 1 dessertspoon soy sauce (start with this small amount, as seaweed garnish is also salty)
- 1 dessertspoon Korean sesame oil (don’t use Chinese sesame oil for this – its flavour is too sharp)
- 1 tsp Korean chili powder
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 eggs
- 6 green onions – green parts cut into lengths and separated from white parts thinly sliced on an angle
- 1 small cucumber – seeds removed, julienned
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms – soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, stems removed and julienned
- 1 medium carrot – grated or julienned
- 250g block of konnyaku – washed and cut into thin, 5cm long ribbons
- 1 small packet (4g) of Korean seasoned seaweed, shredded
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1. Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Set aside the dressing to allow the garlic to mellow, while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Beat eggs. Make an omelette in a non-stick frying pan. Set aside on a plate to cool. Cut into fine 4cm strips.
3. In the same frying pan, add a little oil and fry each of these separately in turn until softened:
- with a pinch of salt – the white parts of the green onions, then the green sections
- with a pinch of salt – cucumbers (see Tip #2 below)
- with a splash of soy sauce – mushrooms. Add a tablespoon of water if they get too dry.
4. Arrange omelette strips, vegetables, konnyaku, half the sesame seeds and half the seaweed on a dish like so:
6. Taste. Add more soy sauce, vinegar, chili powder, sugar or sesame oil if you want it (respectively) saltier, more sour, hotter, sweeter or more fragrant.
7. Pile everything back onto the dish. Garnish with the remaining sesame seeds and seaweed like so:
TIP #1: Double the amounts above and set aside a portion of tossed salad in the fridge. This tastes better the next day, when the konnyaku has absorbed flavours from the dressing. Serve slightly warm.
TIP #2: You might think it’s odd to cook cucumbers. But this removes some of the moisture, preventing liquid from leaching out of the cucumbers to dilute the flavours. Cooking the cucumbers is important particularly if you intend to enjoy the salad the next day as per Tip #1.