A low-calorie and high-fiber vegan gelling agent, kanten is a flavorless seaweed used in traditional Japanese desserts.
Kanten (寒天) is a semi-translucent firming agent obtained from algae. It is high in dietary fiber and will retain its firm shape at room temperature. It’s a great alternative to traditional gelatin and is appropriate for vegetarians/vegans.
Table of contents
What Is Kanten
Resembling white spongy sticks, i is an indispensable ingredient in wagashi, such as mizu yokan, kanten jelly, orange jelly, and kingyoku kan (錦玉羹).
It’s made by harvesting red seaweed, boiling, hardening, and sun-drying. This process takes place during the dry winter season between December to February.
It was first discovered in 1658 by Minoya Tarozaemon (美濃屋 太郎左衛門) in Japan (source). The story goes that when he was about to discard leftover seaweed soup one winter night, he noticed it had gelled and dried up. When he reconstituted it, this strange food lacked the seaweed flavor or odor. He shared this with a Buddhist monk, who thought it could be used as an ingredient in temple food. It was named “kanten” (寒天, “winter heaven”).
Types of Kanten
There are four types of kanten
- Kanten powder (粉寒天)
- Evenly melts in water, easiest for beginners
- Kanten stick (棒寒天・角寒天)
- The usual form of katen; needs to be soaked in water, boiled, and strained before use
- Kanten thread (糸寒天)
- Chopped kanten stick; needs to be soaked in water, boiled, and strained before use
- Kanten flakes (フレーク寒天)
- Used in high-end wagashi
What Does It Taste Like
It’s flavorless and doesn’t have a salty flavor like other types of seaweed. Thus, it won’t alter the taste of other ingredients.
Kanten vs. Agar
The Japanese consider agar-agar and kanten different ingredients because they come from different algae. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably in recipes, and the difference is not that noticeable and thus can be substituted.
- Kanten: made of Gelidiales, red edible seaweed (テングサ・オゴノリ).
- Semi-translucent and firm with less jiggle.
- Agar: made of Carrageenan, which is extracted from red edible seaweed (スギノリ・ツノマタ).
- The word comes from “agar-agar,” the Malay/Indonesian name for red algae.
- It is clear with a soft, smooth texture. It’s used for all types of jellies, puddings, and custards.
Why Do We Use Kanten Over Gelatin?
Kanten has several advantages over gelatin.
- It’s a natural vegetable gelatin (gelatin is derived from animal bones)
- It’s suitable for vegetarian/vegan diets
- It sets more firmly than gelatin and sets at room temperature
- Unlike gelatin, it can stay in the jelly form at a warmer temperature
- Great for dieting as it makes you feel full
How To Use
To learn how to make kanten jelly, click here.
If you are using a kanten stick, you will need to rinse it carefully and break it into pieces to soak them in water for 30 minutes. This step will help dissolve it faster. Squeeze the water out from the pieces, and they are ready to use.
Watch How to Make Agar Agar
Where To Buy
You can find it in Japanese grocery stores and most Asian grocery stores. Also, find it online at Japanese supermarket online stores Mitsuwa or Marukai.
Wish to learn more about Japanese cooking? Sign up for our free newsletter to receive cooking tips & recipe updates! And stay in touch with me on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram.