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Friday, Aug. 24, 2012
Chilling with tokoroten jelly noodles
By MAKIKO ITOH
When temperatures are in the high 30s Celsius you may not feeling like eating much of anything. But even on the hottest, stickiest day a cool, refreshing dish of tokoroten — a kind of noodles made from seaweed — can help revitalize even the most flagging appetite.
Tokoroten is made with agar, a jellifying agent that is extracted from tengusa seaweed. The red seaweed is washed and sun-dried repeatedly until it turns white, then boiled in plain water to jellify it. The liquid is strained through cloth to be clarified, and left to set in square molds at room temperature.
The solidified mass is then put into a tentsuki, a square wooden box that's open at one end with fine thread or wires strung across it in a crisscross pattern, looking rather like a French-fry cutter. The jelly is pushed through the strung end to cut them into long, thin noodles.
Nowadays most tokoroten is just machine-extruded, but purists still use a tentsuki, claiming that it gives the noodles a much better texture.
The glassy tokoroten noodles are served in different ways depending on the region. In most of the country, including the regions surrounding Tokyo, Nagoya and Hiroshima, tokoroten is a savory dish served with nihaizu (a 1:1 mix of rice vinegar and soy sauce) or sanpaizu (rice vinegar, soy sauce and dashi stock). The noodles and sauce are chilled, and served with a little karashi (Japanese mustard), toasted sesame seeds or nori seaweed on top.
Savory tokoroten has almost no calories and is about 98 percent water, with plenty of water-soluble fiber in the agar, and the vinegar sauce helps to awaken your appetite for more nutritious food. It's also surprisingly filling, making it a perfect snack if you're on a diet. In the Tokai (Nagoya/Shizuoka) region you're even supposed to eat it with only one chopstick. In Kansai, however, tokoroten is traditionally served with brown-sugar syrup and fruit, which does up the calorie count.
Tokoroten is such a part of the traditional Japanese summer that it's considered a kigo, a word that indicates the season, in haiku. Both Kobayashi Issa and Matsuo Basho wrote haiku using tokoroten as a metaphor for the flowing, cooling stream of a waterfall.
Kanten, the form of agar that's better known, is actually freeze-dried tokoroten. Kanten has become popular worldwide among vegans recently as an alternative to animal-based gelatin. Unlike gelatin, both kanten and tokoroten stay solid at room temperature, and also have a harder mouthfeel.
Kanten is used to jellify a variety of sweets in Japan, especially mizuyōkan, a sweet adzuki-bean jelly that was traditionally only available in the summer. Cubes of plain kanten jelly are a feature of another summertime snack called anmitsu, together with an (sweet adzuki-bean paste), mitsu (sugar syrup), shiratama (soft mochi dumplings) and fruit. Both tokoroten and anmitsu can be enjoyed at an amamidokoro or traditional Japanese tea and sweets house, or bought ready-to eat at any supermarket.