Agar-agar is a natural vegetable gelatin counterpart. White and semi-translucent, it is sold in packages as washed and dried strips or in powdered form. It can be used to make jellies, puddings, and custards. For making jelly, it is boiled in water until the solids dissolve. Sweetener, flavouring, colouring, fruit or vegetables are then added and the liquid is poured into moulds to be served as desserts and vegetable aspics, or incorporated with other desserts, such as a jelly layer in a cake.
Agar-agar is approximately 80% fibre, so it can serve as an intestinal regulator. Its bulk quality is behind one of the latest fad diets in Asia, the kanten (the Japanese word for agar-agar) diet. Once ingested, kanten triples in size and absorbs water. This results in the consumers feeling more full. This diet has recently received some press coverage in the United States as well. The diet has shown promise in obesity studies.
One use of agar in Japanese cuisine is Anmitsu, a dessert made of small cubes of agar jelly and served in a bowl with various fruits or other ingredients. It is also the main ingredient in mizu yōkan, another popular Japanese food.
In Philippine cuisine, it is used to make the jelly bars in the various gulaman refreshments or desserts such as sago gulaman, buko pandan, agar flan, halo-halo, and the black and red gulaman used in various fruit salads.
In Vietnamese cuisine, jellies made of flavoured layers of agar agar, called thạch, are a popular dessert, and are often made in ornate moulds for special occasions. In Indian cuisine, agar agar is known as “China grass” and is used for making desserts.
In Burmese cuisine, a sweet jelly known as kyauk kyaw is made from agar.
In Russia, it is used in addition or as a replacement to pectin in jams and marmalade, as a substitute to gelatin for its superior gelling properties, and as a strengthening ingredient in souffles and custards. Another use of agar-agar is in Ptichye Moloko ( Birds Milk Cake), a rich jellified custard (or soft meringue) used as a cake filling or chocolate-glazed as individual sweets. Agar-agar may also be used as the gelling agent in gel clarification, a culinary technique used to clarify stocks, sauces, and other liquids.
To use agar, just soak it in the liquid for about 15 minutes, bring it to a gentle boil, then simmer while stirring until it’s completely dissolved. The liquid will gel as it cools.
Acids weakens agar’s gelling power, so if you’re firming an acidic liquid, use more. Like gelatine, agar will break down if exposed to the enzymes of certain raw fruits, like kiwi fruit, papayas, pineapple, peaches, mangoes, guavas, and figs. Cooking these fruits, though, destroys the enzymes. If you plan to add any of these fruits to a gelatine salad, it’s a good idea to buy them in cans, since all canned fruit is pre-cooked. Agar comes in flakes, powder, or bars.
- Gelatine (one tablespoon powdered gelatine for every tablespoon of powdered agar. Gelatine is made from animal by-products.)
- Each of these amounts will firm two cups of liquid: 3 tablespoons agar flakes = 2 teaspoons agar powder = 1 kanten bar