Agar agar is a gelling agent and ingredient in a variety of foods. It is derived from red algae and is released when it is boiled to form a jelly-like susbstance that has a variety of different uses. It can come in strips and flakes but is more commonly found in a powder form that is easier to work with.
Dating back as far as 1658, agar agar is said to have been discovered by a Japanese chef who noticed the unusual texture of some cooled seaweed soup. The discovery that agar agar is an effective medium for culturing scientific samples of microbe was made in 1882. Its use became widespread due to its high melting point that made it suitable for experiments that required higher temperatures than can be achieved using gelatine.
Today, it is produced from red marine algae that is specifically farmed for the purpose with sustainable cultivation practices followed to ensure a continuous supply. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Japan was producing around 2,500 tons of seaweed per year.
The name ‘agar agar’ comes from the Malay word for the seaweed, but it is also known as Japanese isinglass, agaropectin, jaffna moss, and kanten. It is usually extracted from a seaweed called ogonori but can also be produced from other strains such as tengusa.
Agar agar in cooking
Because it is vegan, agar is often used in place of gelatin in popular dishes such as jellies, custards and other puddings. It is largely tasteless, meaning it is ideal for confectionery and desserts as well as savoury dishes such as vegetables in aspic.
It’s unique texture has made agar agar a popular ingredient in a variety of cuisines and it is widely used in both sweet and savoury dishes. It has a long history of use in a variety of different cuisines, including Mexican sweets known as ‘dulce de agar’, that are traditionally shaped like pieces of fruit and rolled in sugar.
A number of Asian cuisines lean heavily on agar agar to create a wide variety of dishes. In Japan, cubes of agar agar are mixed with fruit to make a popular dessert known as ‘anmitsu’. It is also mixed with red bean paste and sugar to make another sweet treat known as mizu yokan.
There is a popular Burmese dish known as ‘kyauk kyaw’ and a Vietnamese one called ‘thach’ that are both made from sweetened agar agar.
In the Phillippines, there is a long tradition of ornamental desserts known as ‘gualaman’ that use agar to make various flavoured jellies. They can be combined with dried fruits, juices, milk and other ingredients to make a variety of desserts. There is also a dessert known as ‘maja blanca’ which is made from agar agar, corn starch and sugar.
In Russia, Agar agar is widely used in marmalades and jams to enhance or replace the pectin usually used. It’s also used in a dish that translates as ‘bird’s milk’, a cross between jelly, custard and meringue that is often used in cakes.
Agar agar can be used in a range of traditional European set desserts, and it is often used as a vegetarian gelatin substitute in dishes such as panna cotta, crème caramel, marshmallows and mousses.
Agar agar is a versatile ingredient that can be used to create dramatic and impressive effects in a range of recipes. It can be used to make vegetarian and vegan versions of a range of dishes that traditionally call for gelatine.
Because it is around 80% fibre, agar agar can be used to treat digestive problems. It can also be used as a food supplement due to its high concentration of calcium, iron, folate and manganese.