Question: The more cosmically minded of my foodie friends, the ones who used to go on about kambocha tea, fish extracts and raw clumps of hemp seed, have lately been going on about konjac. But even the most direct questioning — and direct questioning isn’t anything you want to attempt with this crowd, believe me — has failed to tease out certain facts, such as whether konjac might be animal, vegetable or mineral, whether it is a food or a soluble powder, or from where the stuff might come. Have you eaten konjac? Is it delicious? Should I go out and get some?
—Norma, Los Feliz
Answer: Konjac, a strange, translucent gel processed from the tubers of an Asian plant, is fairly common in Japanese stews and salads, a tasteless, slippery substance that stays crunchy no matter how long you boil it. (The Japanese word is konnyaku, which translates as “devil’s-tongue jelly.”) Extravagant claims are made for the health benefits of konjac. As a juju-strength source of fiber, it is supposed to speed digestion, fill your stomach and prevent gas, as well as absorb calories at will. You’ve probably had konjac in a panchan assortment before a Korean meal — it’s the ghostly white stuff sprinkled with sesame seeds — or as a salad on a Japanese bento box.
But it is Chinese cooks who probably make the most of konjac — Lu Din Gee, reviewed elsewhere on this page, makes almost a specialty of konjac stir-fries and konjac desserts. And ground zero for the konjac cult is probably the Taiwan-based chain Bin Bin Konjac, which is what Starbucks would be if its customers obsessed about intestinal health instead of milk-soaked wakefulness. At Bin Bin Konjac, the namesake substance comes plain, flavored with grape, or tinted black with caramelized sugar, cut up and put at the bottom of boba-like drinks enriched with bird’s-nest or green tea, or layered as the base of Taiwanese-style shaved-ice desserts dolloped with red beans, mung beans and the like. Bin Bin Konjac, 651 W. Duarte Road, Arcadia, (626) 446-9571.
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