Ever since I posted the Mango and Coconut Jelly and Mizu Shingen Mochi I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Agar Agar – what is it? where to buy? agar powder vs strands? how much to use? All you need to know about Agar-agar, right here:
What is Agar-Agar ?
For those of you who do not know, gelatin is extracted from animal skin and bones. If there’s a part of you that objects to that, then Agar-Agar is for you. Derived from red algae, it is the Vegan substitute for gelatin.
Agar was ‘accidentally’ discovered in Japan in the 1600s by an innkeeper, Mino Tarozaemon, who was serving some special guests a very hard-to-make seaweed jelly noodles. To make this dish, the seaweed had to be painstakingly dried and boiled for several days, so it was a dish that was reserved only for the rich. But sadly, there were a lot of leftovers that night and he had to throw it out – understandably, in the absence of refrigerators back then – but when he woke up the next morning, he saw that the jelly noodles had dried up in the snow overnight into a paper-like substance. From that, he developed ‘kanten’, which is our modern-day Agar-agar.
Since it’s discovery, agar-agar been used predominantly to make desserts in Asia, but it has also found uses as a vegan gelling agent and a thickener in savoury dishes as well. Check out this lovely Beetroot Gel flavoured with spices and gelled with Agar-agar.
Apart from its culinary uses, it is also used in laboratories as a culture medium.
Agar vs Gelatin
Although gelatin has a more jiggly, wobbly texture and agar jellies are more firm and have a ‘bite’ to it, I recently discovered that agar can also be ‘trained’ to mimic the wobbly texture by varying the amounts used to set the liquid.
Case in point – the Japanese Raindrop Cake (Mizu Shingen Mochi)
Agar-agar, unlike gelatin, can set at room temperature, and keeps its shape on warm days as well. So if you have a summer potluck to go to, your best bet would be agar-agar.
Where to buy Agar-Agar?
You will find Agar-Agar in all Asian and Indian stores. The powder is slightly more expensive than the strands or flakes, but they all work just fine!
For those in India, Agar is sometimes sold under the name ‘China grass’. You’ll find them in the aisle along with custard powder and baking ingredients.
If you are looking for it in Japanese stores, ask for ‘kanten’ as that’s how agar-agar is called in Japan.
You can also buy them online from Amazon – Thai Telephone brand Agar Agar. It’s much cheaper in Asian stores and Indian groceries, so be sure to check there before going online or to health food stores like Whole Foods.
Powder vs Strands vs Flakes
Powdered agar is the easiest to use. You stir it into the liquid that needs to be gelled and bring to a boil. It dissolves quite easily.
Agar-agar is sold in three main forms: powder, strands or flakes. Kanten is mostly sold in sheets or blocks. Like gelatin, you may also see them being sold in flavoured forms. More often than not, the flavoured ones come with
co-ordinating colours. So please make note of that while buying. If you are using it in a recipe that calls for clear jelly, the colors or flavour might put it off.
You’ll also see Agar being sold in these long, translucent strands (see below) that resemble shredded plastic. These strands when powdered, will give you Agar flakes. Flakes and strands are slightly harder to work with, as they need to soak till they soften, and then boiled in water for a while to be dissolved completely.
My advice: Buy them cheap as strands, use scissors to snip them into 1 inch pieces and powder them in a spice grinder. Store in an air-tight container and use when needed.
1 tsp of powdered agar = 1 tbsp agar flakes = 1/3 cup agar strands (cut into 1 inch pieces) will set 350ml (1 1/3 cup of liquid) into a firm jelly.
For a softer jelly or when using thick fruit pureé, use lesser agar.
How to use Agar?
If using the strands/flakes, soak it in water for 10 minutes to soften it, then bring to a boil while stirring until it dissolves completely. Add color, flavour, coconut milk or fruit pureé as the recipe calls. This way, you’ll know when the agar has completely dissolved. If there are still grainy bits of agar floating or sticking to the bottom of the pan, the jelly will not set properly.
If using powder, mix all the ingredients along with the agar and let it sit for 5 minutes. Never mix agar powder with warm/hot water as it will clump and become impossible to dissolve. Stir into room temperature liquid and then bring it to a rolling boil, making sure the agar has dissolved. Pour into molds and let it set.
Although Agar-agar sets at room temperature, it is best served cold. Let it set at room temperature and then refrigerate for a few hours before serving cold.
Now that you know all you need to know about Agar-agar, go make yourself something delicious with it!
Here’s three to get you started –