Shirataki Noodle is either the perfect diet food or diet fad, use your noodle to decide

With National Fettuccine Alfredo Day (February 7) just around the corner, is it possible to find a recipe that will befit the occasion while remaining true to our New Year's resolutions ... you remember those? Something about eating healthier and losing weight?

Shirataki noodle evangelists at Miracle Noodle and House Foods believe the answer lies in the refrigerated food case at Whole Foods, health food stores, Asian markets or via online purchase. Shirataki noodles, made from either tofu and yam flour (House Foods) or the konnyaku imo plant (Miracle Noodle), cook almost instantly, are high in fiber and low in fat, calories and carbs. A dieter's dream. If you're counting "points," an entire two-serving package of tofu shirataki noodles from House Foods has zero points. Yes, you read that right.

They are also priced to sell. Whole Foods carries tofu shirataki noodles in angel hair or spaghetti shapes for a budget-friendly $1.39 per 8 oz. bag.

In's story Meet the Miracle Noodle, Thomas Rogers writes that, although the noodles have been popular in Japan and China for years, they are fairly new to the US market (2007). Rogers notes a 2008 report in Men's Health magazine that claimed the noodles actually help prevent fat storage. Most recently, Rocco DiSpirito included shirataki noodles as one of his "must-try" foods for 2010 on "The Rachel Ray Show."

Okay, I'll bite.

Has the search finally come to an end? Can we all just sit around eating big bowls of pasta day in, day out and look like Angelina Jolie? Risking a speeding ticket in the rain, I rushed over to Whole Foods like some sort of dieting Don Quixote. The watery packets of pasta sat silently on cool, gleaming shelves, curiously unguarded. I took one, two ... four packets, and headed for home.

After getting my new best friends temporarily situated in the refrigerator, I headed for Google. I had no idea how to achieve noodle nirvana in the kitchen. Luckily, does. A virtual wealth of shirataki information, HungryGirl's online community also had a lot to say about their own noodle experiences.

Ninav wrote, "I find that you need to really soak and rinse the noodles well to get rid of the fishy odor ... if you've never tried these noodles you need to know you'll either love them or hate them."

Hmmm. Fishy odor? Raquel_Arenas answered, "I personally like them ... I wouldn't go as far as saying I love them, but for 40 cals for the whole bag -- it's nothing!" Mykanosdelight said she eats hers with a low-sugar spaghetti sauce and turkey meatballs and calls them, "the invention of the decade." DFS52 posted, "I really enjoy them and love the feeling I get from being so low cal and guilt free. I can honestly say that they are not as good as real pasta but are definitely the next best thing for sure ... I started out at 272 pounds and just hit 242 pounds ... I can say without hesitation that these lifestyle changing noodles have been a huge help for me because I use to love my pasta."

Online commenter Joellejello disagrees. "Ick, I tried these things, I really wanted to like them, I love pasta! But these were rubbery, wormy, smelly, even after I rinsed them forever, then boiled them too. I ate with my homemade spaghetti sauce, but couldn't take more than a couple mouthfuls. They're just not for me."

The Hungry Girl site offered several recipes including "Shrimptastic Fettuccine Hungry Girlfredo," "Noodled Up Soup," and "Noodlicious Zucchini Pancakes." I decided to go with a simple "Fettuccine Hungry Girlfredo" and test it out on my unsuspecting family. However, since I couldn't be sure they'd actually eat it, I hedged my bets and served the "Girlfredo" as a side to our regular baked chicken. (Full disclosure: I noticed after purchasing the noodles and getting my recipes off of the Hungry Girl Web site that Hungry Girl actually endorses the tofu shirataki noodles on the product's packaging. Just FYI.)

To give the noodles a fighting chance with the kids, I doubled the cheese sauce recipe as called for by HungryGirl. Still, it was low-cal enough to be virtuous, and I carefully obeyed the soaking, rinsing, drying off rules for the noodles. It required slightly more work than throwing regular pasta into a pot of boiling water, but if the claims were true it would be well worth the extra effort. I called my husband into the kitchen to ask if he detected a "fishy scent," since even the packaging suggests microwaving the noodles for one minute to "reduce the authentic aroma." He said it did smell a little "shrimpy" -- which wouldn't be a bad thing if one were serving shrimp alfredo. I rinsed a little more.

Since my Whole Foods didn't have the actual fettuccine noodles in stock, I made do using angel hair -- which we all love. When it was on the plate it looked like the real deal. Sprinkle on a little more Parmesan, salt & pepper and voila. Dinner is served.

I surreptitiously surveyed my crew. They were all digging in. I did the same. Hmmm. Definitely not the usual Italian pasta taste or texture. The noodles had sort of a snap to them, in the same way one might encounter bean sprouts. I began to think they might not be bad in a stir fry, in a soup, or perhaps pan fried and tossed with some veggies -- although I admit purists might frown upon the pan frying. I began to feel like someone who has heard a certain movie is amazing and fabulous so many times that actually watching the film is inevitably a disappointment.

I asked the kids. My 12-year-old loved the pasta, "can I have this in my lunch?" he asked (where did we get him?). "Great mom," said the picky 9-year old, "it's a little strange, but it's only the first night." My husband was not as enthusiastic, "I can't say that I love it," he admitted. Still, every plate was cleaned, and all the "pasta" was eaten -- no badgering required.

The verdict? I think by managing expectations, shirataki noodles might find a place on the menu. They may look like Italian pasta but it is only a dieter's mirage. Expecting them to taste the same as flour-based pasta sets the table for disappointment. I would like to try them again in a broth-based soup or whipped up as a spicy stir fry and treat them as an Asian-inspired dish. My dreams of eating something for nothing, however, are gone -- as are my hopes of slimming down without diet, exercise, and surgery.

I suggest, however, that for an outlay of $1.39 and less than 15 minutes of prep and cooking time, a taste test amongst family and friends still might result in something worthwhile. I also began to wonder if the miracle noodles might work topically on wrinkles, a shirataki mask?... hope springs eternal.
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