Tokyo — When Kankichi Kobayashi finds people who don't know what konnyaku is, he throws a party for them. ``Ask me anything about konnyaku. I love konnyaku. Anything you can ask, I can answer,'' challenged the spry, elderly president of the Japan Konnyaku Association at his most recent gala, where he served only dishes made of the rubbery substance.
Processed konnyaku (pronounced kohn-nyah-ku) is basically colorless, but seaweed and food additives are often used to tone it up and make it look a little more appetizing. It's also essentially tasteless and calorie-less. Konnyaku can be bought in blocks, as a stiff gelatin, shaped into spaghetti-like strands, as a powder, or in dried chips.
Dug from the ground just before it flowers in its fourth year, konnyaku looks like a largish turban squash. Each year members of the Japan Konnyaku Association dig 75,000 tons of the tuber for the Japanese and American markets. Anywhere Asian foods, health foods, and low-calorie foods are popular in the United States, konnyaku is popular. It sells particularly well in California, New York, and the Northeast, according to Mr. Kobayashi.
Konnyaku has been eaten in Japan since the 1600s, says Naoki Matsumoto, a konnyaku promoter who was busy pressing guests at the party to taste various dishes. It is a traditional food and is eaten during important Japanese holidays such as the New Year, he explained.
Mr. Kobayashi, whose family has been in the konnyaku business for at least 200 years, would like to see konnyaku become more popular among foreigners in Japan and abroad -- thus the party.
To assist international konnyaku appreciation, Mr. Kobayashi first located a roomful of foreigners and then asked a chef from the Mikasa Kaikan, a well-known Tokyo restaurant, to prepare dishes which might appeal to them.
Toshihiko Tanaka, who is more at home with French sauces than Japanese roots, rose to Mr. Kobayashi's challenge. Because invited guests were from Sri Lanka, India, the United States, Japan, Australia, and Belgium, Chef Tanaka created dishes of curried konnyaku, konnyaku gratin, konnyaku ``steak,'' Chinese konnyaku, and even a konnyaku cheesecake.
``It's hard to cook with and it smells,'' he said, surveying the results. It took him two weeks to work konnyaku into -- and the bugs out of -- some of his recipes.
Konnyaku literally translated into English means ``devil's tongue.'' One of Mr. Matsumoto's colleagues describes it this way: ``It looks like rubber, it tastes like rubber. It doesn't sell well to foreigners, but it has virtually no calories and it's high in calcium. We're trying to make it palatable to foreigners.''