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Biz / TechThursday, July 2

Taking Konnyaku Global

Consumption of some traditional Japanese food has fallen dramatically for years. So manufacturers are looking to market its healthy qualities abroad.

We visit a farm in Gunma, a prefecture north of Tokyo. Gunma is Japan's top producer of yams. The yams are ground up to become konnyaku. It is low in calories and rich in fiber.

But domestic consumption has fallen by more than 60 percent since the 1970s. So Gunma's authorities are working with local manufacturers to boost exports to the US.

The prefectural government opened a special cafe in New York City, last year. The cafe offers konnyaku dishes in a culinary experiment to find out what Americans like. Many people are put off by the spongy, elastic texture of the food. Still, konnyaku noodles are a hit.

The restaurant manager, Sachiko Mitsuno, is back in Japan. She is reporting her findings to the maker of the noodles.

When mixed with starch, the noodles are less chewy and go down smoothly. New Yorkers seem to like their appearance and texture. But Mitsuno says the noodles are too long, and customers have difficulty eating them.

Unlike many Asians, Americans don't slurp noodles, so the 60-centimeter-long noodles are a bit of a struggle.

Kenji Yoshida of IA foods, the noodle maker, says the briefing was very interesting, and will help them make further progress.

There's another company that's innovating, in Saitama. It has developed a healthy salad dressing. The dressing looks and tastes like mayonnaise, but it contains no eggs. Instead, it uses dietary fiber from konnyaku yams. That means the dressing is cholesterol free.

The fiber has another health benefit. It helps discharge extra cholesterol from the body.

Last month, the dressing's flavor was also recognized when it won the "Superior Taste Award" at a prestigious food competition in Belgium. The award triggered a rise in foreign orders. The company ships the dressing to Australia, Singapore and 2 other markets, and is now also getting orders from Europe.

Konnyakuya-honpo's Seiya Sakurai says business negotiations with France are now underway. He says his firm is very small, but he is eager to promote konnyaku worldwide.

Konnyaku has a long tradition in Japan. But to create demand abroad, it is changing in appearance and texture.