Tokoroten is a glass jelly dessert made from seaweed. It’s incredibly low-fat, high in fiber, and a cool dessert during the summer heat. The first time I had it was in Kyoto at a little dessert shop after eating like gluttonous fools with my friends at a Taisho-themed izakaya in the middle of winter (didn’t I just say this was a summer dessert?).
I couldn’t help ordering a cold dessert, since I hadn’t had Vietnamese chè in so long, with its chewy strands of agar jelly mixed with all the lovely sweet things, like coconut milk and mung bean. Plus, it was topped with kuromitsu, black honey, and kinako (roasted soybean) flour, and I looove that stuff. It was an amazing dessert.
During my Izu Peninsula trip, a restaurant that was recommended to us by our minshuku lady had a tokoroten bar, which meant it was all you can eat! It had all kinds of tokoroten in different colors, based on the ingredient it was infused with that I can’t seem to recall at the moment. And all the sweet toppings you can think of, like condensed milk, kinako, kuromitsu, mochi… It was so awesome that we had it before and after dinner.
Now that it’s getting warmer, I’m starting to crave this dessert and have been noticing it in the convenience stores and restaurants. I tried to order it while with a Japanese friend, and was saying how I was looking forward to its sweeeet sweetness, and she took a moment and said, Dude, it’s sour, are you sure you want it? Wait, sour? I’m so confused! Was this the tokoroten that I had in Kyoto? I decided to pass, and wondered about it, almost had a fight with my friend about it. Eventually I dropped it.
The other day, I went to the convenience store and decided to just give it a try, this sour tokoroten. At the very least, I could enjoy the jelly. Inside the packet was たれ (sauce, in general, but for this, it was a vinegar based sauce), a packet of mustard, and a packet with seaweed and sesame sauce. Man, it was really sour and terrible.
I did some research and asked some teachers in the office, after exclaiming to them why I had a disgusted face as I was trying to finish the tokoroten. It turns out that most of Japan eats tokoroten in the vinegar style, which was how it was eaten back in the Edo period. Back in the day, eating it like this was considered healthy because vinegar killed bacteria, so it helped prevent food poisoning, as well as building an iron stomach. Today, it’s lauded for it being high in fiber and low in calories (98% water). Apparently the downside to this is that it’s highly processed.
As for the sweet stuff? I finally found a page that cleared up my confusion: it’s just a Kansai thing (Osaka, Kyoto area).