Maybe there’s a reason you don’t like Jello. Something about the animal hooves that are the source of the gelatin? If that’s all it is, then have I got an ingredient for you. It’s called Agar Agar and it’s derived from seaweed. It is used widely in the Far East as a gelling and thickening agent in desserts and soups. (Do they eat Agar Agar in Pago Pago? Pizza Pizza in Walla Walla? Aye Aye!)
Well, according to my “New Larousse Gastronomique” (circa 1960), this same seaweed is eaten in a regurgitated form as a nest built by a swallow, in what is known as ‘Bird’s Nest Soup’. You may have seen this in Chinese restaurants. If it’s not expensive, it’s probably not authentic. Many reams of Googling brought up no further references to seaweed as part of the diet of the swallow, but by and large described the nests as being constructed from the bird’s saliva. However, some of the nests are blood red, as are some species of said seaweed, and all of them are described as gelatinous, so…….there may be some truth to it.
“Agar” is Malay for “jelly”. In Japan it is called “Kanten”. It comes in three forms: bars, flakes, and powder. The cooking time differs for each, and the more refined the product, the less time it needs. The end result depends on the chemistry of the other ingredients. Pineapple, figs, and citrus, for example, bring their own agenda and it isn’t altogether favorable to the process. This is because acids and enzymes can interfere with the gelling action. That can be mitigated by the addition of a starch, but then I presume that it would be at the expense of clarity. After a little experimentation, it appears that this could turn into a project of some length and patience. Nevertheless I think we’re off to a promising start.
I had in mind a vision of bubbles in a champagne flute and how wonderful it would be to dip one’s spoon and convey to the tongue a semi-solid cloud that would melt and cool and refresh, and (getting greedy here) even becalm the spirit.
Of course I did my due diligence and fielded scads of sites and recipes, trying to get a handle on what it is that makes this substance do what it does. I was seeing some negative feedback regarding a texture that was “too rubbery”. Couldn’t have that. It only seemed to me that more liquid would mean less rubber. So in my first attempt I really overplayed the liquid and ended up with more of a soup than a dessert. The next time around I toned it down and the result was closer to the mark. No, I did not use champagne for these trials as I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of success. Instead I used a sparkling white grape juice and champagne grapes and blueberries. I’m sorry to report that the bubbles get lost in the translation but I do think that the little grapes and berries support the idea of effervescence.
I’m excited by the prospects of playing with this, e.g., incorporating herbal teas (lemon verbena, lavender, thyme, ginger), coffee, coconut milk, and mixing it up with other fruits.
Layering different colors!
For now, have a beginner’s sample…..
Recipe: Blueberry Grape Kanten
4 Tbsp. Agar Agar flakes
1 c. water
3 c. sparkling white grape juice
½ c. blueberries
½ c. champagne grapes*
Combine Agar Agar w/ water in saucepan and let sit for 10 min.
Bring to a boil on med-high heat, stirring frequently . Turn down to a simmer and add grape juice. Stir frequently and simmer for 5 min.
Remove from heat and let cool to just warm.
Pour into glasses and drop fruit in.
*Wondering what to do with so many grapes? They make great muffins.
**Japanese for Cheers!