Agar is a natural jelly from seaweed.
Although most seaweeds have it, some varieties produce more and better quality gel.
Agar was discovered accidentally. The legend goes that a Japanese Emperor and his Court became lost in the mountains during a storm in the 1600’s. They came upon a small guest house where they were served a jelly dish with their dinner. Some of the jelly was left, then froze, thawed and drained overnight, to produce a cracked substance of low density. The innkeeper later found that the substance could be remade into jelly by boiling it up with more water. Agar’s industrialization, as a dry and stable seaweed extract, started at the beginning of the 18th century in Japan, where it has since been called ‘kanten‘.
Until 1940 most of the world’s supply of Agar came from Japan. When Japan entered the Second World War, its supply to allied countries was threatened. Many nations, including New Zealand, started looking into ways to produce their own, whether they had seaweed on their shores or had to buy from other countries. In 1941, New Zealand scientists established that two native species of red seaweed yielded commercial quantities of Agar gel, and the government paid for their collection. The new industry developed in New Zealand in 1941 to provide for our microbiology needs, and also as a jelly for preservation of canned meat sent to soldiers overseas. Most of the necessary harvesting of Agar seaweed was done by East Coast Māori.
Unfortunately, today New Zealand no longer produces food-grade Agar so Pacific Harvest imports Agar from India. Our Agar is high quality and fully tested for contaminants. There has been some controversy over the health impact of some chemically produced Agar gums, but the way our premium Agar is produced, preserves all its virtues.
In the West, this vegan substitute to gelatine has increasingly appealed to people who are vegetarian, vegan or followers of the macrobiotic diet. But please note that Agar can vary from producer to producer. Different seaweeds grow in different environments and different extraction techniques can be used resulting in end products with varied characteristics.
(1) extract from an article from Maggy Wassilieff. ‘Seaweed’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 2-Mar-09