When Yajirobei and Kitahachi—the ever cheeky protagonists of Jippensha Ikku’s Edo period comic travelogue Shank’s Mare—are met by a traveller named Kabocha Gomajiru, Yaji channels the author himself by claiming to be Jippensha Ikku on the road to write the Hizakurige. By assuming this façade, he earns for Kita and himself the hospitality of Gomajiru—that is, until it all inevitably comes crashing down when the real Jippensha rolls into town with letters of proof. Until then, however, Yaji remains devoted to the joke, and his innate stubbornness reveals itself in the scene about the konnyaku dinner.
After the maid brings them their meal, the pair sit utterly dumbfounded by the flat, black stones that accompany their food. Surely, they must be edible, since “they call dumplings stones in Edo” (196). All throughout the story, Yaji and Kita—either jokingly of sincerely—try to present themselves as cultured Edo-ites, worldly and appraised of all things. Thus, when Gomajiru goes to exchange the now-cold stones for hot ones, rather than ask what the stones are for, Yaji goes in the extreme other direction, painting himself as a connoisseur of tasty stones and gravel from Edo to Fuchū. Incredulous, their host goes on to explain that the stones are used to lightly grill the konnyaku, so as to “take out the water and improve the flavour” (197). “I never saw such a strange way of cooking before!” says Yaji, finally admitting his ignorance of the local nuances of cuisine.
There are two things that are telling about this scene: 1) Yaji goes to great lengths to hide his lack of knowledge about all things non-Edo, which characterizes his and Kita’s foppishness and contributes to the comedy of their journey; 2) konnyaku is really, really watery and is meant to be complemented with other foods. In fact, in a portion of 100g of konnyaku, 96-97% of it will be water, with the rest being small parts minerals like potassium and calcium, and about 2-3g of dietary fibre (glucomannan). Because of its low calorie, low fat and low sugar content, it has been used as a cleansing food (“the broom of the stomach”) for centuries.
Brought from the Asian mainland in around the 6th century as a medicine, konnyaku (AKA Devil’s tongue, AKA konjac) became a regular food during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) and also developed into a meat substitute in shojin (vegetarian) cuisine of Buddhist temples. Even today, it is still a staple of a vegetarian or vegan diet in Japan.
Konnyaku’s popularity became widespread during the Edo period (1600-1868) because it was also cheap, and because of its ability to be paired with many things. For example, because it has very few flavour properties of its own, it can absorb the flavour of things it is cooked with, making it great for soups. Also, because of its chewy nature, it can add texture.
The plant itself is grown in humid areas, like Komatsu in Ishikawa Prefecture, and it takes three years for the plant to mature enough to harvest, after which it can be made into blocks of jam. As shown in the passage from Shank’s Mare, it can be served in different ways. It can be grilled, or it can be eaten raw like sashimi. If the jam is cut into noodle strips, it is called shirataki (white waterfall).
Konnyaku also has a presence in poetry. According to the World Kigo Database (kigo being a word that is associated with a particular season), konnyaku kigo have to do mostly with its harvesting or drying out, and are associated with winter. This poem by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), a Meiji Era poet, provides an example:
shigururu ya / konnyaku hiete / heso no ue
it’s drizzling… / devil’s tongue cold on / my belly button
Janine Beichman explains that this poem was written in the winter of 1896, during particularly nasty weather, and here Masaoka is using a block of konnyaku as a “heating pad” to warm himself. However, the block has cooled and moved down his navel, and the feeling now echoes the drizzle outside (70).
Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694), too, was apparently fond of konnyaku, and it is included in two of his haiku:
konnyaku no / sashimi mo sukoshi / ume no hana
Just a few slices of konnyaku – and some plum blossoms
konnyaku ni / kyō wa urikatsu / wakana kana
konnyaku / today sold-out / by young herbs
Today, konnyaku is still very much in use as a dietary food, but it also comes in other, more novel forms. A store in Shikoku offers konjac sweet, cakes, bagels and even burgers!
Jippensha Ikku. Shank’s Mare. Trans. Thomas Satchell. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1960.
Beichman, Janine. Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works. Boston: Cheng & Tsui Company, 2002.
Contributors: Alice Jin, Cherry Yan, Ning Yang, and Titus Joel