Miracle ingredient: agar!

According to Wikipedia, “agar or agar agar is a gelatinous substance chiefly used as a culture medium for microbiological work.” However, the first thing that pops into my mind are the colourful agar agar jellies from my primary school tuckshop. Baking Mum has some exquisite versions of the traditional layered agar agar dessert here and here.

Also called ‘kanten’ in Japanese, agar agar is made from seaweed and is high in fiber. Read more about what it is and how to store and use it here and here. The second article also allows you to compare agar with other forms of gelatins.

[28/12/07 update: just came across this information which says that in Japan, kanten and agar-agar refer to separate products made from different kinds of seaweed and have different textures. The additional details here suggest that outside of Japan, this distinction may not be so important and the term ‘agar-agar’ is used in a broad fashion to denote a whole family of seaweed products.]

Most interesting to me is the strong historical Malayan connection to this food substance, which is evidenced by the fact that its international name today is the Malay word ‘agar’. The entry on SinglishDictionary.com lists fascinating colonial references to agar in Malaya from 1813, 1820 and 1894 and opens a little window on how this Southeast Asian item made its way further afield.

Making agar agar suddenly sprang to mind a few weeks ago as I was thinking of something non-savoury for my bento boxes. I was reading how LunchInABox uses jello-cups in her bentos and she mentioned melting. In comparison, agar has the advantage of not melting, which is very handy in our tropical weather. It can even set without refrigeration. Now doesn’t that sound like a miracle product ^_^?

The wonderful thing about agar agar is that you can use it to gelatinise (is there such a word?) almost any liquid, except vinegar and foods high in oxalic acid, which includes spinach, chocolate and rhubarb (read more in this article).

I racked my brains for agar flavours to complement my bento and eventually made two flavours:
a) red bean & soy milk (slightly sweetened) – a combination of tastes familiar in Asian desserts which I’ve experimented with in other ways
b) Pu-Erh tea – not a traditional agar flavour here in Singapore/Malaysia (I put a bit of sugar, but so little that I couldn’t taste it, might as well have left it out)
I thought the red bean+soy milk would be a semi-filling snack while the Pu-Erh tea would be a nice palate-cleanser after a savoury, and possibly oily, meal — after all, Chinese tea is good at ‘washing’ away the oiliness of Chinese food :).

Agar tray
The clear agar on top row are Pu-Erh tea, the cloudy ones are red bean+soy milk. The pig shapes are silicone moulds and the other open containers are plastic bento side dish containers. Of the covered ones, the rectangular shape is regular plastic and the round one is a disposable condiments container (which I wash and reuse anyway). All items from Daiso, including plastic tray.

Already much earlier on, I had thought of making a mugicha jelly, which has nice roasted taste and no caffeine. However, the possibilities are endless — puddings, jams, fruit jellies — and even savoury liquids can be used to produce an aspic jelly. This page and this one give suggestions how to use agar in a non-traditional way, mostly as a type of salad. But to extend the idea, savoury agar is a fabulous idea for transporting broths and soups in one’s lunchbox!! I’ll certainly try this out one day.

I used the powdered form that comes in convenient packets, each one enough for 1 litre of liquid. Quite a few cooking blogs recommend Rose brand as it produces a firmer agar than other brands. Swallow Globe brand is also extremely popular. These come in clear, white as well as coloured versions (which you might want to avoid if you don’t care for artificial colourings). There are also organic brands such as Eden and Clearspring, both of whose websites point out that commercial agar tends to use sulphuric acid as a softening agent and chemical bleaches and dyes to whiten the seaweed and remove its smell.

Here are some recipes for Malaysian sweet agar agar desserts:
1) Lily’s Mango Sago Pudding
2) Milo Agar Agar
3) Mooncakes also come in agar agar versions these days; a couple of fancy variations here and here.

Here’s a creative idea for bright red agar jellies made with beetroot — no nasty food colouring needed.

Check out the Japanese perspective on cooking with agar/kanten here.

Also organic/ macrobiotic recipes from Eden and Clearspring. As this page says, macrobiotic recipes often add body to the agar by adding tahini or almond butter.

Now away you go and dream up your own infinite possibilities for agar agar ^_^!

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8 Responses

  1. [...] (Above) A two-tiered bento: Top layer: heart-shaped onigiri mixed & topped with furikake, sticks of fried Japanese sweet potato. Bottom layer: red bean + soy milk agar-agar in pig-shaped mould, Pu-Erh tea agar-agar in round cup. Read more in my posting on agar agar. [...]

  2. [...] About « Miracle ingredient: agar! [...]

  3. [...] agar ideas Published December 6, 2007 bento 便當 , recipes I’ve written about agar-agar as a ‘miracle’ ingredient to me, and here are a couple more ideas for what you can [...]

  4. [...] Published December 9, 2007 Japanese , Singapore , consumer watch , food culture I wrote earlier about the Malay origins of the word agar-agar and how this clearly shows the important historical [...]

  5. Just came across some info about the distinction between kanten and agar-agar. See update in main text.

  6. Loved your post! How did you like the Pu-erh tea agar?

  7. Hi dudewheresthestove,

    Glad you liked the post :). The Pu-erh agar was a great compliment to any savoury bento. Yesterday, I just ‘reprised’ the idea in the form of Oolong tea konnyaku jelly and the fragrance of the Pinglin Baozhong tea I used came out very nicely in jelly form.

  8. Interesting…haven’t tried cooking with konnyaku jelly but it sounds brilliant.

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