Agar, made from agar seaweed, is one of the traditional foods of Japan and was first made early in the Edo Period (1603–1868). It is currently drawing attention as a zero-calorie, health food that is rich in dietary fiber. As it does not have any smell or taste of its own, and can be easily dissolved in hot water and solidifies when it cools down, it has long been used as an ingredient in the Japanese confectionery yokan. Today, it is seen in a variety of dishes and its use is expanding. Agar can be dyed in any color and is a wondrous food to eat.
The reason agar production, originally from Kyoto, moved to Shinshu
The origin of agar dates back to around 1658, where it was first made in Fushimi, Kyoto. The owner of an inn left seaweed noodles outdoors in the middle of the winter. The noodles froze overnight, melted the next day and became a dry solid. It is said that the owner of the inn saw this and came up with a way to create agar. However, agar production prospered not in Kyoto, but in Nagano (then known as Shinshu).
“A merchant from the city of Suwa, Nagano, saw agar being produced in Kansai thought that it would be a great side business for the farmers in Suwa, which has severely cold winters, so he brought back and circulated the technique for the farmers. Today, agar production is a common part of a winter in Suwa’s,” says Kimiaki Tanaka, Assistant Deputy Manager of the Sales Department of Ina Food Industry, an agar manufacturer from the city of Ina, Nagano.
Ina Food Industry began as a family of farmers from Ina who also produced agar. Agar is created by simmering agar seaweed, extracting the ingredients, and dehydrating it by repeated cycles of freezing and thawing. The severely cold winters of Ina are perfect for agar production because they are contrasted with relatively many clear days with large temperature fluctuations. According to Tanaka, Ina’s high-quality water is also an essential factor for making agar.
“We use a lot of water to make agar. The city is sandwiched between the Southern Alps and Central Alps, and their groundwater is used for our agar. The pure water makes for a great product.”
Exploring the future of agar
However, the traditional method of agar production is hard labor, as it takes place outdoors in the middle of winter. In addition, the quality of the final product depends on the environment. Because of this agar was a commodity with unstable yields and quality. To change this situation, Hiroshi Tsukakoshi, current Chairman of Ina Food Industry, stepped in. He developed the technology required to produce agar in a completely sealed plant, which made it possible to create a stable amount of agar, of stable quality, in a hygienically clean environment. He also put most of his efforts into looking for the raw ingredient: the agar seaweed.
“Agar is all about its raw ingredient, agar seaweed. This is because there are strict rules that only allow us to call it agar if it is 100% seaweed.”
Tsukakoshi travelled around the world to develop places that would source agar seaweed. “I also taught the local people how to select good agar, how to handle it and ship it, so I could develop partners who could provide me with good agar. Based on these efforts, we have been able to continue producing agar to this day,” says Tanaka.
Agar seaweed grows well in the winter when the sea water temperature is low. For the waters around Japan, this is the period between February and April. The agar seaweed grows on rocks and is lapped by the rough waves, growing to be very large and having tons of the base material that yields agar. Right now, Ina Food Industry produces agar daily from agar seaweed shipped from the seas of about 20 countries from around the world.
Manufacturer and the largest consumer: The infinite potential of agar
The other unique feature about Ina Food Industry is that more than 10% of its employees engage in research and development of agar. Agar was once only recognized as an ingredient used in Japanese confectioneries, but it can actually be used in surprisingly many areas, and the number of these is increasing.
There are about 200 varieties of agar. The most significant difference is each variety’s “jelly strength,” which indicates the hardness of the agar when it is solidified after being mixed with water. The difference in jelly strength depends on the type of the agar seaweed and its origin, says Tanaka.
“Agar seaweed is a generic term. There are many varieties, like gelidium elegans, pterocladiella tenuis, and gelidium japonicum. Even if they are from the same family, their physical properties vary depending on the region and the condition of the waters they grew in. We blend the many kinds of agar seaweed with our own know-how, and change extracting methods to produce agar of various properties.”
Using these differences in strengths, the company has developed many types of agar, from agar strings that can be put in soups and stews as they are, powdered agar that dissolves easily to be used in any dish, retort-pouched food including risottos and rice mixes, cereals, sauces to dressings.
“Agar does not have any taste or smell and goes well with any food or drink. It also has a special property called great flavor release, meaning it enhances the taste of the food or drink it is matched with. For example, when you bite into a yokan, the taste of red beans spreads in your mouth, but if you use gelatin to make the yokan, you will not taste this flavor. Agar is also a zero-calorie food that is rich in dietary fiber, so is great for health. The people of Nagano generally put agar strings in their miso soup, and both men and women are known to live long lives.”
The company is also venturing into new fields, like agaro-oligosaccharide supplements, a component of agar that has recently been drawing attention for its supposed ability to protect the cartilages that keep joints together.
Agar, an almighty and healthy traditional food from Japan. This time, E-ZEY JAPAN delved into agar’s potential and developed products like jellies and rice snacks that use agar.
“Agar has no taste, no smell, is packed with dietary fiber but has no calories. It is the unsung hero which enhances other foods. I hope more people will know how great agar is,” says Tanaka. The potential of agar truly has no limits.
Writer : ASAKO INOUE / Photographer : SATOSHI TACHIBANA
*Selected photos courtesy of Ina Food Industry Co., Ltd.