Gluten-Free, Carb-Free Noodles
Lowering my intake of carbohydrates has been one of the biggest struggles of my life. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth — if you told me I could never have cake or pie again, I'd be bummed, but I'd get over it. But giving up bread? Pasta? Rice noodles? Now THAT makes me want to weep.
There are lots of reasons why someone may want to cut carbs from their diet. Whether you're diabetic, trying to lower your blood sugar, or simply trying to lose a few pounds, limiting the number of carbohydrates that you take in on a daily basis can be a smart move.
However, it's really hard to cut back on carbohydrates, because carbohydrates power your brain. Eliminating carbs completely* (à la Atkins Diet) can leave you feeling foggy and dull, because your brain is struggling to find fuel to run on. Carbs make up the bulk of calories consumed the world over, but because most Westerners don't get much exercise, we turn those carbs into fat. And we get fatter and fatter.
Enter the low-carb diet craze of a few years back. Now, I'm not really fond of popular diets as prescribed by charismatic actors and sales people — I don't find that they work, and the particulars are so crazy and detailed that sticking to a published diet plan can be incredibly difficult. It's not to say that you can't draw inspiration from The South Beach Diet; it's just that I've never met anyone who has successfully lost and kept weight off while using it.
For me, losing weight will be a life-long struggle, and as a diabetic, finding low-carb foods to eat has been difficult from day one (a word to the wise: "wraps," or any food involving a tortilla, are not low in carbohydrates. Tortillas, especially flour tortillas, have as many carbs as a slice or two of bread). Particularly tough has been eliminating rice and rice noodles from my diet, because rice noodles are a very purified form of complex carbohydrate. They contain almost no fiber, no fat: just carbs. And they absorb into your blood stream very quickly, causing sudden and uncomfortable spikes in blood sugar.
But noodles taste so good! Or at least, the way they are prepared in Asian cuisine, cooked with chilies and lemongrass, or chicken and garlic, or made with spinach and soy sauce...(wipes drool from keyboard)...rice noodles are something that I truly missed.
Until now. Because about five months ago, I discovered something that seemed like a raw foodist diet secret: kelp noodles.
Now, some of you are saying to yourselves, "Kelp? But I don't LIKE seaweed." Fear not, my wussy paletted friends! Kelp noodles don't really taste like kelp. OK, if you take them straight out of the bag and eat them without rinsing or flavoring, you might get a hint of sea-flavor. But if rinsed thoroughly, then seasoned and cooked with your favorite flavors, kelp noodles, like rice noodles, simply absorb the flavor around them. The only difference is the kelp noodles retain a bit of a crunch instead of going completely limp and mushy after cooking.
I found my brand of kelp noodles, Sea Tangle, through a raw food vegan web site, and then was delighted to see that I could find them at my local co-op in the tofu and salsa section. At $2.75 a pack, they definitely aren't as cheap as rice noodles, but given that they (1) are filling and (2) contain a total of 18 calories per pack and (3) are incredibly versatile, I'm not complaining. They're also gluten-free, which means that people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance now have more options when facing down dinner (or lunch...or breakfast, I suppose). They are clear in color, crunchy (a water-filled crunch as opposed to a dry one), and soften with cooking. I would liken their texture, but not taste, to that of jellyfish. Don't let that gross you out! It's a really nice texture.
Discovering that there was such a thing as carb-free noodles opened my eyes to a world of awesome noodly goodness for diabetics. One of my favorite Korean dishes, chapchae (or japchae) involves yam noodles that are delicious, but total poison to a diabetic due to their high-carb, low-fiber content. However, just a couple aisles over in my Korean supermart are carb-free shirataki noodles, made from a tuber that is very similar to yams. Shirataki are more delicate than kelp noodles, but have a wonderful, soft mouthfeel. I love eating shirataki noodles in miso soup, or topped with my favorite peanut sauce at room temperature.
Slightly higher in calories (20 calories per serving) are tofu shirataki noodles, which cost less than $2 per pack at my Korean market, and are made with tofu and yam flour. Tofu shirataki noodles also come in a variety of shapes, so you can still have fettuccine with (almost) no carbs if that's what you're craving. I find that tofu shirataki noodles do well with the kinds of toppings you might traditionally associate with Italian cooking: pesto, marinara, Alfredo. They're not going to replace actual wheat pasta anytime soon, in the same way that a veggie burger doesn't really approximate the experience of a freshly grilled Angus burger - but if gluten (or carbs) are on your no-no list, I do recommend giving these a try.
Sea Tangle has an archive of kelp noodles recipes, but you can really treat any of these noodles the way you would any other kind of noodle. In fact, Seattle ramen restaurants offer shirataki noodles as a substitute for their ramen. Hey, nothing will match the awesomeness of fresh ramen noodles, but a diabetic's gotta eat, you know?
If you've never tried any of these low-carb options, I hightly recommend giving them a spin. If you HAVE tried them and have some recipes to share, please feel free to post or link to them in the comments!
I have received no money, free samples, or payment of any kind to write this article.
** Several people who demand "accuracy" in their writing have pointed out that the Atkins Diet does not "entirely" eliminate carbohydrates from the diet, it just cuts them back to between 2-7 grams per serving.