It comes from the sea, but when you’re done preparing it, it tastes divine.

On a recent trip to Wakayama Prefecture, our Japanese-language reporter Haruka Takagi stopped in a michi no eki. Literally translating as “road station,” michi no eki are roadside rest stops/gift shops that specialize in locally produced products, and while she was there she bought this.

That’s a bag of tengusa, or “heaven grass.” However, it doesn’t come from the skies above, but below the surface of the sea, as it’s a kind of seaweed.

Fibrous as it may be, though, it comes out of the bag in an incredibly stiff clump. Haruka tore off a tiny piece and popped it in her mouth, and the plastic-like texture and consistency had her brain immediately signaling “This isn’t food.”

But tengusa really is edible. It just needs to be properly prepared, and it’s actually the most traditional ingredient used for making the old-school Japanese gelatin dessert called tokoroten.

The first step in the process is to soak the tengusa in water for an hour to soften it up. Sure enough, this loosened up the clumping.

Then you need to bring the water to a boil, add a tablespoon of vinegar, and let it keep boiling on medium heat for a total of two hours. After the first 50 minutes, Haruka needed to add more water, and she had to do it again another 40 minutes later, followed by turning the flame down to low heat for the last 30 minutes.

As the process went along, the individual strands started to dissolve, turning the liquid increasingly thick.

They don’t completely melt, though, so once the two hours are up, the next step is to strain the liquid through a cloth into a tupperware container.

Then you just need to set it in the refrigerator to chill and harden.

All together, it took Haruka six hours to turn her heaven grass into Japanese gelatin. The orthodox tengusa, she noticed, produced tokoroten with a stronger yellow color than some modern substitute ingredients do.

At this point, the stuff can be eaten, but it’s still not in its most delicious form. Haruka’s pouch of tengusa was a jumbo-sized bag that makes 10 servings, and she could just slice off a piece with a knife. However, to get the best texture, tokoroten aficionados use a special tool called a tentsuki, which Haruka picked up at a specialty kitchen supplies shop.

Then, to give it a sweet flavor appropriate for a dessert, she added kuromitsu (a molasses-like brown sugar syrup) and kinako (roasted soybean powder).

The sticky nature of the kuromitsu ensured every bite of gelatin came coupled with the sweetness of the syrup and powder, and Haruka was once again reminded why tokoroten has been a popular dessert in Japan for generations, and it tasted so heavenly that she was very happy she’d bought the 10-serving bag of heaven grass.

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