Low-calorie summer snacks in Japan

I haven’t updated recently because I haven’t been cooking much. There’s a heinous water leak in my kitchen, so everything’s been cleared out from the cabinets and shoved into boxes for the past few weeks. We’re moving next month to a place that’s not crumbling to the ground (ostensibly), so normal activity should resume then.

There’s a term in Japan, “natsubate,” which describes that general feeling of exhaustion and loss of appetite that many of us experience in the intense heat and humidity. Sometimes it’s accompanied by “natsuyase” – summer weight loss. Sometimes it just means the idea of slaving over a hot range sounds like torture. “Calorie-off” and “Calorie-zero” beverages and snacks are available, but there are actually some more established Japanese foods – especially during the summer – that are healthy, light on calories, and dare I say a bit more natural than “Zero-calorie jelly.” The below items can all be bought more or less ready-to-eat, can all be served chilled, and all make for pleasant, cooling snacks that won’t leave you feeling full and uncomfortable in the sweltering summer sun.

1. Konnyaku and shirataki (devil’s tongue jelly or yamcake)

Konnyaku is often translated as “devil’s tongue jelly,” because that sounds both appetizing and straightforward. Apparently, devil’s tongue is a type of plant from which a gelatinous substance can be extracted and processed into the chewy, wobbly bricks that are so common in the grocery stores (in the Aisle of Mysteries, where else)? Shirataki is simply konnyaku that has been extruded into long, skinny noodle shapes.

I first heard of konnyaku in the US, though it wasn’t called konnyaku – it was called “Miracle Noodles” and advertised as a zero-calorie pasta substitute. A writer for some online magazine tried substituting these shirataki noodles in a pasta marinara. Knowing what I know now and having experienced konnyaku in several dishes, this idea is madly hilarious. Don’t put shirataki noodles in traditional Italian-style pasta dishes unless you want to be disappointed (the writer came to the same conclusion). But you should put konnyaku to different uses – stir-fried with meat, veggies, mirin, oil, and soy sauce, for example. I like to sautee it with fresh ginger, mushrooms, and tofu, then chill it in the refrigerator and eat it as a cold dinner.

Oh, and you can also buy “konnyaku candy” or “konnyaku jelly” snacks, which are little fruit flavored blobs you can stick in the fridge and eat. Bonus: They’re considered choking hazards and banned in the US due to their slippery texture. But in Japan, if you choke, it’s your own damn fault for eating wrong. Each bite-sized packet feels like a little bit o’ rebellion against the nanny state, yeah?

About 15 calories per serving of straight konnyaku. 25 calories for a piece of konnyaku candy.

2. Tokoroten (agar-agar noodles)

These are “noodles” made from agar that has been extruded much the same way as shirataki. They don’t need to be cooked – buy them chilled and eat them with a little salad dressing. Many come already flavored with “summer flavors” like aoshiso. I like to mix a little kimchi into mine and eat it as an after-work snack.

I will warn you, tokoroten might not be for everybody. I offered Dane a bite with mustard and ponzu; he bravely accepted. He ruminated silently for a moment before pronouncing, “You like weird stuff.”

About 20-30 calories for a pack. Sometimes it comes with dressing, the way natto does, but feel free to toss those and use something fresher.

3. Hijiki (brown seaweed) and wakame (green seaweed) salad.

 

Hijiki shows up in kyushoku a lot, mixed with cooked carrot, burdock root (gobou), and sometime tofu or soybeans. It usually needs to be soaked for a 20 minutes, then rinsed. After that it can be eaten mixed into salad or simmered with the above ingredients (with soy sauce, mirin, and/or dashi, of course) and chilled. I love it.

By itself, about 15-30 calories per 100 grams (source information varies widely).

Wakame salad is also quite popular, and often eaten with sliced of cooked octopus. It should also be soaked and boiled before being eaten.

By itself, about 40 calories per 100 grams.

4. Edamame (green soybean)

Buying edamame still on the stalk, knowing it came from the fields just down the street, was one of my first “Holy hell I live in Japan” moments. Buy the pods dirt cheap, pick them off the stalk, and boil for 5-7 minutes. Drain them, salt/season them, and eat hot or cold.

125 calories per 100 grams.

5. Mugicha (toasted barley tea)

You can buy this premade or make it in the same manner you would make loose leaf tea. Dane doesn’t really like the flavor of barley tea – because it actually tastes like barley tea – but I love the earthy wheat flavor. It’s shockingly thirst quenching.

0 calories.

Did I forget something? Let me know in the comments below while I go pass out next to the fan.

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