Last week we discussed the wonders and variety of uses for gelatin, but for the many folks who do not include animal products in their diet, the plant world offers a wonderful alternative. Agar is an edible jelly derived from a red algae called gelidium amansii that is found in the shallow waters of many Asian countries including Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula.
Agar was discovered in the mid 17th century by a Japanese innkeeper who noticed jelly had formed on a pot of seaweed soup that was left overnight. Known as kanten in Japan, the jelly comes from the cell walls of the algae. The naturally derived jelly like compound is a combination of agarose and agarpectin, thus it is also known as agar-agar.
Agar is a great medium for scientists and biologists needing an inert substance to grow bacteria and fungus; agar is great for this because it stays in gel form at temperatures that would melt gelatin; gelatin turns liquid at 37 C whereas agar doesn’t melt until it reaches 85 C.
It is this property that makes agar agar great for many culinary applications, as it doesn’t have to be refrigerated to hold its shape. As a result, it is a highly prized ingredient for jams, jellies, aspics, custards and cake fillings, it stiffs up soufflés and is also used to clarify stocks and thicken sauces and gravies. Agar is used as an alternative to pectin for jams, and as a substitute for gelatin in candies too; in Mexico, fruit-flavoured candies known as Dulce de Agar are as common as jelly beans or gummie bears are here.
If you’ve had the popular Filipino fruit beverage Sago al gulaman, the jelly bits you are swirling around are made from agar and sago, and you will find agar agar in the desserts of most cultures around the world. And since agar is 80% fibre, it acts as a great, natural regulator and dietary aid; dried kanten expands threefold when ingested giving a feeling of fullness which in turn suppresses the appetite. The Kanten Diet is based on this idea. In terms of nutrition, a tablespoon of dried agar has about 21 calories, including 5 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon as well as trace amounts of protein and minerals, and no fat.
Agar is available in powder, flakes, or bar form, and most recipes that feature it range from the relatively simple and straightforward to elaborate and fanciful. For some great recipes and surprising ideas on how to use agar in your next meal, click here.