A Chemistry Experiment
Ken Albala squeezed cloudy, spaghetti-size shirataki noodles into a pot of boiling water. They emerged from the hand-held metal extruder jagged and translucent.
We were on the first recipe of a marathon day of noodle making and he wanted to start with the strangest one.
“Isn’t it bizarre?” Albala asked, peering down into the pot filled with some of the weirdest-looking noodles I’d ever seen. “It looks like some nasty chemical, but it’s not.”
Shirataki noodles are traditionally from Japan and have been around for centuries. And they are bizarre: Made from konjac flour, which is derived from Amorphophallus plant roots, they are indigestible, so they fill you up but have no caloric value (a fact, Albala suspects, that the original consumers of shirataki did not know). In modern Japan, they are sometimes eaten as a diet aid. Albala keeps a large vitamin bottle filled with konjac flour in his Stockton, California, home, a few blocks from University of the Pacific, where he is a history professor and chair of food studies. Just 1 1/2 tablespoons of konjac flour—which contains a polysaccharide called glucomannan that acts as a hydrocolloid, which means that it adds viscosity to water—makes a potful of noodles.
These noodles had come together by mixing the konjac flour with water and then, after allowing the mixture to rest, adding calcium hydroxide, an alkaline that raises the pH of the noodle dough and is necessary to help turn it into a solid gel. Calcium hydroxide, or cal, is also used in the process of nixtamalization, an important step when turning corn into tortillas.
“This is entirely a chemistry experiment,” Albala said as he set the timer for 30 minutes, an unbelievable amount of time to boil a noodle. And for Albala, noodles are the perfect grounds for experimentation. “It’s so much more fun to just go get in the kitchen and play around. If it doesn’t work, so the hell what? Every time you experiment, it’s a learning experience.”
We tasted this extreme noodle after it finished cooking, sampling straight from the pot with chopsticks. Albala declared the texture perfect. And they were quite pleasing—flavorless but slick and snappy with a toothsome bite. All the rest of the noodles we would make that day, Albala assured me, followed a much more standard science to make it to our bowl.