Konnyaku is a jelly made from a type of potato native to East Asia, known in English as konjac. It has a variety of interesting names in English, namely Devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, snake palm, and elephant foot. Thought to have been introduced to Japan from China in the 6th century as a medicine, konnyaku is still eaten by many Japanese even today.
Originally, konnyaku was believed to have various medicinal properties, and was frequently eaten or prescribed to be eaten by early Buddhist monks in Japan, who often played the role of doctors. From here, it became widely eaten among the Japanese population, who appreciated its supposed medical benefits. Some of these benefits are still believed by some, such as its supposed ability to relieve coughs, reduce pain, cool down burns or heal frostbitten fingers (not all of which require eating it). Despite being introduced from China, today konnyaku is eaten mainly by the Japanese.
Konnyaku appears in Japan’s oldest encyclopedia, Genjun’s Wamei Ruijusho (931-937). Many forms of Japanese literature reference konnyaku at some point, including proverbs, tanka, haiku, and so on. There are also many folk stories connected with it. Frequently these literary references talk about the use of konnyaku as a health food, or trying to convince readers of its many health benefits.
In the comedic tale, Shank’s Mare, the two travelers from Edo, Yaji and Kita, prove themselves to be ignorant, arrogant and foolish as they spend their time moving along the main road from Edo to Kyoto. Considering themselves to be culturally superior to the country folk they encounter, they often commit several errors in judgement when they come across new things. This certainly is the case when the two men are served food at various inns and stopping points. Yaji, in particular, considers himself to be a superb judge of food and a man of exquisite culinary taste. As a result, he makes a number of blunders in his responses to food. Late in Book One, for example, he and Kita are on their way to Akasaka when they stop at an inn where they are served wedding savories by a landlord who is preparing for his nephew’s wedding that night. Having heard a wild story from an old woman about a fox that bewitches travelers, Yaji is highly suspicious, and is very reluctant before biting into a piece of food which turns out to be a prawn, a symbol of good fortune at wedding feasts. He saves his greatest error, however, for when the two stop over at Ueno. Mistaking hot stones for food that are actually meant to add flavor to konnyaku by drying the food out, Yaji decides they are some kind of dumpling. Hoping not to look foolish or offend the landlord by asking him how they are supposed to eat these strange dumplings, he simply eats on of the hot stones. Later, when the landlord comes in to replace the cooled down stones, Yaji says to him:
One stone will be enough, though they’re very nice. In Edo, you know, they serve gravel pickled in hot pepper sauce or with boiled beans…They’re my favourite food. Why when I was living in Fuchu, we used to have stones stewed as turtles…Your stones are especially delicious but I’m afraid of eating too many in fear I should incommode you (p. 197).
Playing the worldly connoisseur of good food and the courteous traveller, Yaji reveals himself to be a boaster and a buffoon who does not have the good sense to admit when he is wrong. Instead, he pretends to be a man of good taste and casually makes light of the fact that he has eaten a hot stone when the landlord explains the confusion and tells the two travellers the stones are just meant to add flavor to the food.
Konnyaku in the Present Day
Present-day Japan is still a very health-conscious nation, and many are trying to slim down, or avoid diseases associated with aging. Due to the perception that aging-related diseases may be aggravated by food additives, the wholly “natural” konnyaku is regaining prominence. While evidence for many of its folk benefits remains sketchy at best, it is certainly a low-calorie food, full of minerals and dietary fibre. Because of this, it remains popular as a health food even in the modern day.
Jippensha Ikku. Shank’s Mare. Trans. Thomas Satchell. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1960. pp. 195-197.
Contributors: Alexander Hogg, Mengsha Xiong, Shengjia Zhang, Xin Zhao