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Konnyaku devil’s tongue, or elephant foot, is a tuber and a gelatinous paste from its grounded root is made into blocks, sometimes with an added ingredient such as red pepper. The latter is named kaminari konnyaku, lightning konnyaku (pictured above), due to its fiery nature. Despite its sinister sounding English name, there’s nothing to fear about this commonly used vegetable.
Konnyaku is mostly used in nabe cuisine, and oden hotchpotch, or coated with miso as dengaku. Thinly sliced it is called shirataki, and is a gelatinous bootlace lookalike used in sukiyaki. In slightly fatter form it is called ito konnyaku thread konnyaku, a common addition to nabe. In of itself, konnyaku has little taste, but it serves an important role as completely calorie-free ‘filler’. It is very popular with those seeking to lose weight.
Renkon lotus root is best from winter to spring and has connections with Buddhist cuisine by way of its webbed, wheel-like cross-section that is reminiscent of the ‘wheel of reincarnation’. In season from winter to early spring, it has to be boiled with vinegar to remove its strong iron content which otherwise turns it black.
Lotus root is served as sunomono (pictured left as surenkon at Ryozanpaku in Kyoto), in nimono, and as tempura. In the dish karashi renkon, it is steamed and the gaps between the ‘spokes’ are filled with karashi Japanese mustard. This is a speciality of Kumamoto Prefecture. Be warned though, it has an unusual characteristic for a Japanese dish: it can be really, explosively spicy.
Gobo burdock root is a fabulous vegetable. In its fresh form, it must be immediately placed in vinegar water after cutting, to remove bitterness. Most people thus buy a ready-to-go version aragobo – it means ready-washed – at their local supermarket. Burdock root is used in Yanagawanabe with dojo loach, and as kinpira gobo where it is shaved into thin strips, fried in sesame or other oil, and seasoned with pepper, sugar and shoyu. Gobo is also fantastic in soups as it produces an excellent, deep, natural dashi. Thinly sliced in cross-section and deep-fried (as pictured here accompanying mebaru rockfish at luxury restaurant Narisawa in Tokyo), they are termed renkon chippusu.