Sunday, August 10, 2008
Day twenty: Tokoroten / ところてん
Tokyu Foodshow, ¥152
Tokoroten noodles of sliced unflavored kanten are another popular summer treat. Chilled and topped with either dark or light syrup, tokoroten are refreshing, low-calorie, high-fiber—and yes, a slightly odd experience for the unaccustomed. The noodles are very slippery and offer so little resistance that your teeth may clack together if you dig in too enthusiastically.
Personally, any enthusiasm I might have for the texture is undercut by a slightly sour, sulphuric odor. Blame might fall on the molasses in the syrup, but since I tend toward squeamishness and paranoia, I also wonder if the odor isn't left over from the way the kanten was processed.
The orignal method of making kanten from seaweed was discovered in Kyoto in the 17th century, when dried gelidum strips were accidentally rehydrated. A few small producers still use the old production techniques. The seaweed is harvested in the autumn and allowed to dry in the sun before being shipped from the coast to inland processing sites. During the winter, the dried seaweed is cooked until it forms a gel. When cool, this is cut into blocks and spread out across frozen fields or paddies. For up to two weeks, the water in the gel goes through a daily cycle of freezing and evaporating until nothing is left but the kanten fibers, which are then ready to be processed into sheets, threads, or powder.
Even using these “natural” production methods, kanten is a highly processed food. Industrial production has cut out a great deal of the labor required by using sulfuric acid to achieve a colorless and “flavorless” end product. The annual global production of kanten is around 7000 tons, one-third of which comes Japan, the world's largest single producer. Much of that produced stays in Japan, where the average person eats about 20 grams of kanten per year.