Key Ingredient


Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Ingredient of the week

Chew into tapioca
strips and kanten

Desserts and sweet snacks in Asia tend to be on the lighter side and often include some kind of fun, jelly-like ingredient. Beads of pearl tapioca in bubble drinks are especially hot now, but other tapioca products and gelatins can be used for light and healthy sweets as well.

The basics: Clear and colorful tapioca sticks, called bot khoai in Vietnamese, are available dried. Tapioca is a starch derived from the root of the cassava plant, which is native to South America. Tapioca is made into many forms, such as powdered flour, granules and the popular pearls. Tapioca sticks are made into funky zigzag shapes and have a chewy texture, with virtually no flavor. They are most often used in sweet drinks of coconut milk, condensed milk, fruits or azuki and mung beans.

Kanten, or agar-agar, is another popular gelatin ingredient used in sweet Asian desserts. Kanten is a gelatin derived from refined seaweed. It is believed to have been invented by mistake in Japan around the 17th century. When freeze-dried seaweed was boiled down and cooled, a jelly-like substance was revealed.

Kanten is an alternative to animal-based gelatins. It will set and will not melt, even at room temperature. It is generally sold in translucent sticks about 10 inches long, or as crinkly strands.

Storing: Both tapioca sticks and kanten will keep indefinitely in dried form. Once cooked, consume immediately or keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

Use: Both dried tapioca and kanten need to be boiled. Cooking time for both will be quicker if sticks are soaked in water 30 minutes or so before cooking. Tapioca takes 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time; make sure to stir to keep the strips from sticking. They can then be mixed with sweetened coconut milk, ice and fruits or beans.

Kanten will need 5 to 10 minutes cooking time and will dissolve in the liquid. Sugar and other ingredients can be added to the kanten liquid, then refrigerate. Almond float and mitsumame (a Japanese dessert of kanten and fruits) are two popular kanten treats.

Where to buy: Most Asian markets and some supermarkets carry tapioca sticks and kanten. Tapioca sticks are priced at around a dollar for a 7-ounce bag, while kanten runs $2.50 to $3.50 for two sticks.

Food Stuffs: Morsels

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga is
a free-lance food writer. Contact her
online through

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