Konnyaku jelly with oolong tea and kiwi seeds

It’s ‘summer’ time again, or rather, the hot season in Singapore, which means that refreshing cool snacks like jellies are very suitable for tempering the heat. Last year I experimented with the wonderful agar-agar, which creates jellies that do not melt in the tropical heat, making them ideal for putting in bento. The texture of agar-agar is firm and crisp.

In contrast, konnyaku jellies are chewy or “QQ” in Chinese slang. Several years back, konnyaku jellies were all the rage in faddish snacks in Singapore; many stalls sprung up and soon disappeared (just like bubble tea, Portuguese egg tarts and Roti Boy). These days, you’d probably have to make konnyaku jelly at home if you want to eat it, which from my point of view, is a much healthier way to go, allowing you to bypass all those nasty artificial colourings and flavourings.

While agar-agar and kanten are derived from seaweed (the terms are often used synonymously, but technically they are derived from different strains of seaweed), konnyaku, also known as konjac, is derived from a starchy root vegetable or corm. According to Wikipedia,

Konjac (Amorphophallus konjac; syn. A. rivieri; Japanese: 蒟蒻/菎蒻; こんにゃく; konnyaku; Korean: 곤약; gonyak; Chinese: 蒟蒻; pinyin: jǔ ruò), also known as konjak, konjaku, devil’s tongue, voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam (though this name is also used for A. paeoniifolius), is a plant of the genus Amorphophallus. It is native to warm subtropical to tropical eastern Asia, from Japan and China south to Indonesia.

Just Hungry has a good introduction to the varieties and usage of konnyaku here. I love to use the noodle form, shirataki, in hotpot meals because unlike regular noodles, they do not go soft and soggy if cooked for a long time,

Konnyaku goes through various kinds of processing to make the different form it appears in commercially. This article provides a recipe for turning konnyaku flour into a versatile firm jelly, by adding an alkali, such as calcium hydroxide, usually in the form of pickling lime, or in traditional Japanese methods, extracted from eggshells.

Konnyaku is often promoted as a healthy food as it is virtually zero-calorie and is high in fibre, rich in minerals and is alkaline (read here) as well as absorbing toxic substances during digestion and elimination (see here).

However, so far all the brands of konnyaku jelly power I have come across in the shops contain various additives, sometimes in the form of colouring and flavouring, but many include carrageenan as the main ingredient, not konnyaku! Seaweed-derived carrageenan is used as a thickener and gelling substance. While carrageenan does not generally cause food sensitivity problems, it has been reported to be carcinogenic. However this article from the organic company, Eden Foods, clarifies that while chemically-treated ‘degraded carrageenan’ (non-food-grade) is a known carcinogen, food-grade or ‘undegraded carrageenan’, has been shown to be safe for consumption. Don’t forget that consumer agar-agar powder is also chemically bleached of colours and seaweed smells (see my earlier post).

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Konnyaku jelly made with ‘Pinglin Baozhong’ oolong tea and kiwi seeds

Making konnyaku jelly is easy as one simply needs to follow the instructions on the packet of the jelly powder. One packet is enough for one litre of liquid. About 250g of sugar is included in the recipe but this isn’t necessary at all, just add however much you wish.

Having had great success with my earlier tea jellies – Pu-Erh agar-agar and mugicha agar-agar, I used the same idea to make konnyaku jelly. The Pinglin Baozhong tea is a very fragrant variety of oolong and the delicate aroma came through very well in jelly form. I added in a small amount of sugar — about 50g — which was perhaps unnecessary as it wasn’t enough to make the jelly sweet or add to the taste.

For visual effect, I also used kiwi seeds, which are sold in dehydrated form right next to the packets of konnyaku powder in Phoon Huat. As you can see from this Phoon Huat video on how to make konnyaku jelly, for some reason kiwi seeds are presented very much as an integral part of the way to make konnyaku jelly – I have no idea why. The seeds are easily rehydrated by soaking in water for twenty minutes. The suggested amount was half a teaspoon of dehydrated seeds for 1 litre of liquid jelly, but in retrospect, I think twice that amount would have been fine too.

The recipe for konnyaku jelly on the back of the packet says to use one-eigth teaspoon of citric acid. This makes the jelly more chewy. I forgot to add it in! but the texture was still very satisfactory. I wonder if the tannic acid in tea helped with that.

The photo shows my snack bento with two konnyaku jellies. The good news is that I found that, like agar-agar, they don’t melt either. Yay!!

I’m in a big konnyaku jelly craze right now. The other day, in the organic cafe at Fu Lu Shou Complex, Yogi DIY, I had a soya milk drink with flaxseed powder and cubes of honey (?) konnyaku jelly. The combination of flavours was very nice but I thought the preparation was rather sloppy as the flaxseed powder was in clumps and not properly stirred into the soya milk, while the jelly had obviously been made in a regular ice cube tray and the moulds overfilled such that the shapes were very untidy. It would have been much nicer to use ice cube trays in decorative shapes (plenty in Daiso!).

As honey is high in salicylates, I might try making a maple syrup konnyaku jelly next…. [Speaking of maple syrup, be careful not to end up buying maple-flavoured syrup by mistake; the real stuff is more expensive, but doesn’t have to be exorbitantly so – Carrefour sells organic pure maple syrup for just $9 a bottle, whereas it’s usually $15-$21 for other brands in health food shops.]

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Red bean agar with glutinous rice ball 白玉紅豆糕

This is from the Hong Kong-published wagashi recipe book, 日式和菓子, where it is called Shiratama Azuki Mizuyoukan 白玉紅豆糕.

As I was already making glutinous rice balls, I thought it would be convenient to try out this recipe at the same time.

Red bean shiratama agar

50g glutinous rice flour/ shiratamako
45 ml water

These are the quantities given in the recipe for 6-8 balls. My own recipe and tips for glutinous rice balls are here.

Before making the agar-agar, put one cooked glutinous rice ball into each mould. The recipe used small waterproof bags to create unevenly-shaped agar-agar for a unique appearance. However I wasn’t sure about pouring boiling agar-agar liquid into plastic bags so I went for some silicone baking cups instead.

80g red bean paste (already sweetened to taste or omit sugar if desired, my cooking instructions here)
4g agar-agar powder|
240ml water

The instructions in the book say: “Mix agar-agar powder with water in pot. Heat until agar-agar completely dissolves. Add in red bean paste.”

As usual I failed to follow instructions and started by mixing my chunky red bean paste with water, hoping to get a more even red bean liquid. (Yes, I should have used the food processor to make a smooth paste but I already had a disaster earlier in the day when I processed my red bean paste soon after it had been used to for chillies!! Hmmm, spicy red bean paste could be the beginnings of an entirely new food adventure…) So when the agar-agar powder entered the hot water, it immediately clumped up :P and I had to resort to much whisking to try and rectify the problem. Should have learnt my lesson after the water chestnut fritters experience.

In retrospect, I should have put the red bean paste and water in a blender (no chilli taste!) to get a smooth liquid. Then put the agar-agar powder into the room temperature red bean liquid before heating up the whole thing whilst stirring all the time.

Pour the agar-agar liquid into the moulds containing the glutinous rice balls. Put into refrigerator until hardened.

Makes 6 to 8 pieces.

The first thing I would say about this wagashi is – please eat immediately! The glutinous rice ball in the middle was a nice texture contrast to the agar-agar and like a special surprise inside. It was a bit harder than hot glutinous rice balls, but still nice and chewy. Later that day, the glutinous rice balls had turned too dry and hard in the centre whilst remaining gluey on the outside, and this became worse the next day and the day after. Serves me right for making 12 pieces instead of the 6 to 8 in the recipe!

Also, because my red bean was fairly solid, it separated out from the rest of the liquid whilst setting. You can see here the two clearly-demarcated layers. Which isn’t really a problem, simply a point to note; just depends on the effect you are trying to create.

red bean shiratama layers

Agar-agar from where?

I wrote earlier about the Malay origins of the word agar-agar and how this clearly shows the important historical role of Malaya in the transmission of this food outside of Asia.

On my last visit to the supermarket, I had a closer look at the two most popular brands of agar-agar: Rose brand and Swallow Globe brand.

Although Rose is a Singapore brand, and Swallow Globe is Indonesian, the actual agar doesn’t come from Malaysia or Indonesia at all. Rose brand packets state, ‘Product of Japan’ (agar is known as kanten in Japanese) and Swallow Globe agar comes from Chile! This list of industrial agar and carrageenan suppliers includes a large proportion of companies in South America. I wonder what happened to Malaysian production of agar-agar?

More agar ideas

I’ve written about agar-agar as a ‘miracle’ ingredient to me, and here are a couple more ideas for what you can do.

Agar idea #1: Tomato juice, corn & miso

(^_^)…. check out this inspired tomato juice & corn agar-agar from French Bento! Here’s a translation of the instructions:

1) Put 1 litre of bottle tomato juice in a pot.
2) Mix into the cold juice: agar-agar, herbs according to your taste, garlic etc.
3) Leave to boil for one to two minutes.
4) Take the pot off the stove, and if you wish, mix in one tablespoon of very-diluted miso (which adds protein).
5) Pour into containers, into which you have earlier put the corn kernels.
6) Refrigerate.

However, if you are intolerant to salicylates and glutamates, don’t forget that tomato products are high on both these counts. Read more about salicylate sensitivity here.

Agar idea #2: Mugicha (roasted barley tea)

agar mugicha

Using mugicha tea bags from Daiso, I made the infusion much stronger than if one were drinking it by using two bags instead of one. I’ve found that tastes become much lighter when in cold, agar form and I wanted to make sure the agar jellies had a noticeable mugicha taste.

I then divided the mugicha into two 500ml batches and added a tablespoon of sugar to one. I then put in the agar-agar powder and made it up according to the packet instructions.

agar moulds

To distinguish between the two types, I put the sugared ones into konnyaku jelly moulds (above, clear plastic), and the sugarless ones into a ‘sherbert tray’ (below, opaque white plastic) with smaller shapes. (The konnyaku moulds were bought at a local wet market years ago during the height of the konnyaku craze; the sherbert tray is from Daiso – I hope it can handle hot liquids :P.)

Verdict: very delicious! I knew the no-sugar ones would seem rather tasteless but now I find that I enjoy them more because you can focus on the delicate, coffee-like roasted barley taste.

The sugared version was pronounced ‘not sweet enough’ by my family, but after eating the no-sugar ones, the sweetened ones elicited the kind of hollow feeling which the taste of refined sugar sometimes gives me. I don’t know how to explain this; I guess my tastebuds have changed after five years on minimal sugar, and there are some foods which the diehard sweet-tooth in me still loves to eat mind-blowingly sweet but there are other foods which don’t strike me as being enhanced by sugary-sweetness.

One idea for the no-sugar version is to make them into very small shapes (or chop up a larger block) and serve it in a light syrup, rather like chin chow/grass jelly drink.

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 ^_^!