Incorporating kanten, agar made from seaweed extract, into your daily diet is good for your health, according to food experts.
"Kanten is about 80 per cent dietary fiber," said Tadayuki Kakizoe, manager of Kanten Papa Shop Baikoen-ten, a shop in Fukuoka specialising in traditional Japanese ingredient.
To manufacture kanten, a type of seaweed called tengusa is boiled in water so that agar liquid can be extracted from it. The extract is then solidified and dried.
In the past, most kanten products came in stick form, but today products in powder form have become standard.
By adding water to the powder, then simmering the mixture and allowing it to cool, the agar can be solidified again.
"Just a small amount of kanten can make a large amount of water congeal. Dietary fiber and water can help the body break down fat and waste products stored inside the body," Kakizoe said.
His store, which opened two years ago, is a pilot shop of Ina Food Industry Co., a kanten maker based in Ina, Nagano Prefecture.
The store has a section with tables and chairs so local residents can sample the products in a comfortable manner. Bimonthly cooking classes are also held there.
To make a sweet jelly such as mitsumame-small cubes made with kanten, sweet beans and pieces of fruit-four grams of kanten powder are mixed into 500 milliliters of water. Allowing the mixture to congeal with assorted ingredients as a filling makes it as chunky as conventional jelly. If the quantity of the powder is reduced to one gram, the texture becomes softer.
Adding a teaspoonful of kanten powder with water to a simmering curry can thicken the roux. It also makes washing the dishes afterward less of a chore, as any roux remaining on the bottom can be removed easily.
Kanten powder can also be used with rice. Mix about two grams of kanten powder, equivalent to a teaspoonful, with about 540cc of rice before cooking. As the kanten adds a gelatinous layer to the grains, cooked rice becomes flavorful and glossy.
Ito-kanten available in long, thin strips offer a way to give a pleasant, silky texture to soups, including miso soup.
Another recommended way to use the ingredient is to soak kanten in string form and mix it with wakame seaweed to make a salad.
"Kanten has zero calories," Kakizoe said. "Eating kanten is said to help prevent arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and diabetes."
Kakizoe said he often talks about the history of kanten during the frequent lectures he delivers at universities and municipal halls.
Kanten originates from a method of making tokoroten-similar jelly-like noodles made from the same variety of seaweed-that spread to Japan during the Nara period (710-794).
In the Edo period (1603-1868), an owner of a ryokan inn in Kyoto placed chunks of tokoroten outdoors in winter and noticed that fluctuations in temperature caused them to dehydrate.
The discovery prompted the use of kanten as a basic material of various foodstuffs, including traditional Japanese confectioneries such as yokan, or sweet bean jelly.
In Nagano and Gifu prefectures, making kanten became popular as a side business of farmers. In the last years of the Edo period, the lord of the Satsuma domain built a kanten factory in today's Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, and exported the products to the Ryukyu Kingdom-today's Okinawa Prefecture-and China during the Qing dynasty, as well as Russia.
Kakizoe, a history buff, said he has visited the site where the factory was located and similar places.
"We can say that revenue from kanten manufacture functioned as one of engines for the Meiji Restoration," he said.
In the Meiji period (1868-1912), kanten became popular among ordinary households.
Kakizoe said in Yamaguchi Prefecture and some other places, it has become a local custom to make "irotsuki kanten," or coloured kanten, in red and green, and to use it in New Year dishes.
"I hope people find ingenious ways to utilize this traditional Japanese ingredient to stay healthy," he said.