Food & Drink

With charm and color, Japanese farmer works to bring konnyaku to the world

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo

Haruna Endo never saw it coming, but after over a decade of trial and error, she is finding success selling her konnyaku (devil’s tongue) jelly by creating eye-catching products to consumers from both Japan and abroad.

“It was as if I was struck by lightning,” Endo said of the first time eating konnyaku freshly prepared by her husband’s uncle in Numata, Gunma Prefecture.

“It was so soft and completely changed my image of konnyaku. I wanted to spread the news,” said the head of Kasho, a konnyaku-focused factory in Gunma Prefecture. The area is Japan’s largest producer of the potato-like tubers, with a market share of around 90 percent.

Endo, who calls herself a “hyper konnyaku creator,” sells a wide variety of unique products. Most have been spiced up with “the spirit of fun,” such as konnyaku bubble tea, or balloon-shaped konnyaku jelly deserts that come in various colors and are perfect Instagram fodder.

She is also playful in naming her products, using onomatopoeia suhc as chururin (slurp) or puri puri (boing) or labeling them as “gifts from tengu,” long-nosed creatures found in Japanese folklore.

When a limited run of konnyaku bubble tea was introduced at a hotel at the popular Kusatsu hot spring resort in Gunma in August, more than 1,700 of the drinks were sold in about two weeks. Encouraged, Endo intends to sell them in other areas next summer.

Although ultimately a low-calorie food, konnyaku may give something of a shock to those not accustomed to its almost ghastly gray-white, rubbery and gelatinous appearance. Derived from the corm of the plant, its nicknames include “devil’s tongue,” “voodoo lily,” “elephant yam” and “snake palm.” It is said to have been introduced to Japan from Indochina around 1,500 years ago.

The flavorless food, which is 98 percent water, often appears in Japanese dishes like oden, a soy-flavored hot pot broth with fishcakes, radish and boiled eggs, as well as in miso soup with pork and vegetables. Shirataki, which is konnyaku cut into noodle-like strips, is often used in hot pot dishes because they absorb soup well.

But demand has not been increasing because the domestic market has receded in recent years, prompting Endo to take her products overseas.

She said products sold in the United States, in New Jersey and Los Angeles, specifically, have been well received. Most of the people there were tasting konnyaku for the first time.

“It doesn’t make sense to do the same thing that other konnyaku farmers do, so I wanted to be different and do something that can be attractive on the global stage,” Endo said. “Luckily there is a boom for Japanese cuisine recently overseas. I hope more people will become familiar with konnyaku.”

The path to success has not been easy for Endo, who has taken on various jobs over the years, including as a part-time dental worker and English teacher. Before konnyaku, she had never even tried her hand at farming.

In 2005 Endo moved to Numata, her husband’s hometown, hoping to raise her child in an environment closer to nature. She got her opportunity to take a shot at konnyaku production after an acquaintance of her father-in-law decided to quit farming.

But when she actually started, she found that the devil was in the details.

“I had no skill and experience and the reality of farming was completely different from the image I had,” Endo said. “I had read books on how to grow konnyaku, but it works completely different in reality. It’s something where experience counts for everything.”

She said she was surprised by how sensitive the plant is to weather and how delicate it is.

“My stomach ached due to stress whenever a typhoon was approaching. Growing konnyaku is like gambling — high risk, high return,” she said.

Unlike potatoes, which can be harvested in a few months, konnyaku takes around three years to harvest. It is vulnerable to cold and rots easily. It was around a decade later when Endo had finally acquired the skill to grow it.

In August 2015, she inherited a manufacturing factory from her husband’s uncle, giving her the chance to make the same konnyaku that had shocked her so long ago.

As a newcomer, finding customers wasn’t easy.

“But if you have the will and courage, even a small farmer like me can do it and even branch out to the world,” Endo said, adding that her latest plan is to sell konnyaku bubble tea in Myanmar.

“It never feels like a chore because I am sort of a nerd who can be singly devoted to something I’m interested in,” she said.

Konnyaku’s soluble dietary fiber helps flush the intestines and assists in stopping overeating by sating the appetite, experts say.

“It’s a food that Beverly Hills cannot ignore,” Endo said, hoping to further expand konnyaku sales in the U.S. and perhaps even grow it there.

“Freshness is everything for konnyaku. So why not grow it in the United States rather than export it? My dream to expand the popularity of konnyaku never ends,” she said. “It actually goes with anything, soup, curry or yogurt, so it is a global food,” she said.