Japanese cuisine takes jellied dishes to another level. Far removed from common Western jelly-based desserts such as Bundt-pan molded gelatin fruit cocktail, and even classic French preparations such as eggs in aspic, Japanese preparations like raindrop cake and kanten exhibit a clean, vibrant aesthetic that makes them both delightful to look at and enjoy. So, how do Japanese cooks turn something as simple as gelatin into creations so divine you almost don’t want to eat them to avoid marring their beauty? With finesse and careful technique.
Japanese cooks commonly use three types of gelling agents to create their marvelous jellied dishes: kanten, a seaweed-based gelatin; agar, an algae-based gelatin; and traditional gelatin, made from the bones and connective tissue of animals. Unlike traditional gelatin, kanten and agar break down relatively quickly at room temperature. This relegates their use to chilled dishes, such as umeboshi (plum) jelly and mizu yokan, a red bean jelly dessert.
The technique used to gelatinize kanten and agar is similar to that of regular gelatin. First, heat the kanten or agar powder along with water and secondary ingredients such as sugar and milk (or juice). Allow the powder to dissolve, stirring occasionally and pour it into the mold. Usually you also add an embellishment, such as edible flowers, to the mold.
In addition to cherry blossom, plum and red bean jelly, Japanese cuisine offers an array of dishes that make the most of versatile gelling agents, perhaps most notably water cake. You might have seen the crystalline, mochi-like water cakes before; you really can’t confuse them with anything else. Transparent and elegant in their simplicity, water cakes, or mizu shingen mochi, call for just three ingredients. Water, sugar and agar.
The most recognizable water cakes have a pickled sakura flower suspended in the center, which opens when the heated agar mixture is poured into the mold, but there several variations that follow the same technique. Raindrop cake, for example, has a brown-sugar sauce accompaniment and is served with a soybean-flour sprinkle that adds a touch of umami as well as contrasting visual appeal.
No matter the variation, the result is stunning. After a three-hour chilling period in the refrigerator, and careful removal from the mold using a toothpick, a soft yet stable confection is born. Water cakes are best served straight from the refrigerator, as they melt within 30 to 45 minutes at room temperature. Water cakes are commonly served with a caramelized sugar syrup and kinako, a type of roasted soybean flour.
Other delectable jellied dishes include “mitsumame”. This dish comes with some sweetened jelly cubes with fresh fruit and azuki beans. “Anmitsu”, another dish similar to “Mitsumame”, comes with azuki paste. There are several Westernized takes on Japanese jellied dishes that incorporate secondary ingredients. Those include ingredients such as coffee, green tea, guava, hibiscus and even jalapenos.
Jellied desserts might have a grand following, but savory jellied dishes, just as prevalent in Japanese cuisine. For example, summer veggies and tofu gelée incorporates warm-weather vegetables and gelatin to create a savory treat that cools the palate during the hot summer months. With tomatoes, tofu and avocado, this gelée has a well-rounded, full flavor profile that pairs exceptionally well with a chilled Japanese IPA.
On the other end of the texture spectrum, you have dishes like shrimp aspic with matcha green tea, a preparation that balances the delicate texture of gently cooked shrimp with the delicate bite of its clear, velvety coating. With fresh spring peas, piquant bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, capers and lemon zest, shrimp aspic with matcha has a taste redolent of ceviche contrasted with the bite of crisp veggies — a contrast in texture, taste and appearance that satisfies any adventurous palate.