Gelatin desserts were once popular, if not standard, in American kitchens—those proto-futuristic dishes of canned cocktail fruits encased in artificially flavored, bright pink substances, molded to look like a space age Bundt cake as per Betty Crocker’s instructions. Sadly for the jelly enthusiasts hidden among us, jelly desserts have gone out of style in the United States. But not so in Japan, where the Japanese obsession with jelly is alive and well, with gelatinous innovations like the water cake starting to wash up on American shores. The love for Japanese jelly desserts goes deeper than modern hype, though, because many of these jelly dishes are actually traditional, in no small part because agar, the primary vegetarian substitute for gelatin, is a Japanese invention and has been part of Japanese cuisine for centuries.
Agar was discovered in Japan in the mid-1650s by an innkeeper named Mino Tarōzaemon, and it has since become an essential ingredient in Japanese baking, dating to the Edo Period, according to the Tokyo Foundation. Called kanten in Japanese, this plant-based thickening substance, derived from seaweed, helps liquids coagulate into jellies, often to jaw-dropping visual effect. The most basic form of this dessert is mitsumame—cubes of sweetened agar jelly, dissolved in water or some kind of juice, that are served with fresh fruit and azuki, or red, beans. There are variations on this basic bowl, like anmitsu, which is served with azuki bean paste rather than the sweet, whole beans.
The fruit can also be suspended within the clear cubes of jelly, as with fruit kingyoku. And as Nami Chen, the Japanese-American blogger behind Just One Cookbook, emphasizes the simplicity of the process in her recipe for fruit jelly. “I want to emphasize it’s super easy to make this attractive dessert,” she writes. “All you need is a portable stove, a small saucepan, a cutting board, a knife, and a mold.”
The flavor can also come from the jelly itself, by cooking the agar with different juices or adding different powders and mixes to adjust the taste of the otherwise neutral kanten. Yōkan, for example, is made by mixing either red bean or white kidney bean paste into the agar and sugar mix. It can also be made with green tea powder, like matcha. Coffee jelly is another popular variety of jellied dessert that actually dates back to the early 20th century, made by adding sweetened coffee to agar, and then chopping the congealed coffee into cubes or slices. It's just as popular as ever, and Starbucks Japan actually capitalized on the love for coffee jelly by releasing a coffee jelly Frappuccino last month, which had little globules at the bottom of the cup.
The possibilities are really endless, especially once you start looking at seasonal ingredients, which is a common feature of Japanese cuisine. There’s high-end Hakuto jelly, a mix of kanten and the juice of sweet, ripe peaches from Okayama that’s only available in the summer and occasionally comes in molds shaped like peaches. In the spring, you can enjoy sakura jelly, a single cherry blossom suspended in an otherwise clear jelly that’s sometimes flavored with sakura, or cherry blossom, powder.
Since jellies have been part of Japanese cuisine for literally centuries, it’s little surprise that Japan is at the forefront of modern-day jelly innovation, having mastered the technique and pushed it to its most logical—or occasionally illogical—limits, like that viral raindrop cake. One restauranteur in Tokyo took the water cake one step further by suspending pieces of cooked chicken inside clear blobs of gelatin. You can get soda with jelly bits floating in it from vending machines in Japanese cities. There’s also diet jelly for folks looking for a quick weight loss solution, since kanten is functionally calorie-free. The Gelatin Manufacturers Association of Japan has even declared that July 14 is Gelatin Day in Japan, since, according to RocketNews24, the date sounds similar to the Japanese word for “gelatin.” (The team at RocketNews24 celebrated the holiday by making a 12-liter chunk of jelly, if you’re curious about what that looks like or ever doubted that newsroom’s love of whimsical foodstuffs.)
These modern over-the-top gelatinous creations are definitely whimsical, if occasionally a little gross in concept, and if anything, they’re starting to become increasingly reminiscent of those gelatinous monstrosities of the so-called atomic age. So there’s something refreshing about the simplicity of a traditional kanten dessert, a single plum suspended in clear jelly, gracefully floating in an ocean of sugar and seaweed.