Several weeks ago I stopped on the way home from Trout Lake to hear my friend Karen Shivers sing jazz and—not incidentally—to eat great sushi at Hiroshi’s on Lake Union. Along with the sublime house rolls I decided to try konnyaku, “yam cakes” with miso sauce.
What I imagined was a sort of vegetable version of Japanese fish cakes, which I’ve always liked, right down to their dayglo dye jobs. They are about as processed as a McDonald’s chicken nugget, and I rarely eat them anymore, but I have happy memories of chomping them down in one-pot meals at Tonkatsu in Seattle’s International District, several decades ago.
At Hiroshi’s yam cakes were on the separate menu slip more oriented to the Japanese catering side of their business. The server warned me that non-Japanese don’t usually like it because of the texture, which she described as “hard jelly,” and that did give me pause, but I ordered anyway and promised not to complain. I was glad for the warning because “hard jelly” was the perfect description of these dark brown, basically tasteless cubes, coated in a really good spicy miso sauce that redeemed the experience.
Later I asked a friend whose mom is Japanese and she began to reminisce happily about yam cake in soup, yam cake in stews, so I do know at least one person who appreciates its subtle qualities.
I did a bit of research and learned that they are made not from sweet-potatoes themselves but from the starch of a relative called devil’s root, so they bear about the same relation to actual sweet potatoes the way I love them--roasted with garlic--as potato starch does to a perfect fingerling. As in, no taste: The point is the texture, and its ability to carry other flavors. This puts in it in the category of aspic (hate it!), tofu (best after a stretch in a pungent marinade), factory-farmed chicken breasts (a waste of cholesterol), and a Chinese specialty, dried jellyfish, that underwhelmed me the only time I tried it.
(By the way, the white meat of pasture-raised chickens actually has an identifiable flavor, something most of us have not experienced and that therefore caused a good deal of comment this summer as we ate our way through many, many examples in Romania.)
That got me wondering about the point of such food. With tofu, one could make the case that the protein is the point, so it’s just a matter of finding ways to make it palatable. But with devil’s tongue and jellyfish, there is no such justification and there’s a fair amount of labor involved in creating it. So many cultures have examples of basically tasteless traditional favorites—lutefisk!!--that it must go beyond nutrition.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten—no compelling theories have come to mind.