The Mighty Little Red Bean

More polyphenols than red wine, abundant in fiber and minerals—the little brownish-red beans, azuki, are considered to be the second most important legume in Japan after soybeans. After they entered Japanese culture, they had their own unique evolution, or "Japanization", which in turn influenced other cultures. Even people unfamiliar with the word azuki probably have heard of "red bean ice cream" and there are likely quite more than a few who have enjoyed that cool, creamy confection! But, when first hearing about cooked beans mixed with sugar, undoubtedly there were folks who thought hmmm…!? But in Japanese food culture, delicious sweet red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is a much loved and indispensable ingredient in Japanese confections. Let's find out where these little red beans came from, and how they earned such an important position in Japanese cuisine!

Azuki Beans are…?

Azuki, a member of the legume family, is an annual vine. Said to have originated in East Asia, it was discovered in its cultivated, or domestic form, and, interestingly enough, has no known wild counterpart. As documented in an ancient Chinese pharmaceutical text, the broth from cooking the beans was used as a counterpoison. Via word of mouth, azuki became known as a medicinally beneficial food, said to prevent the formation of blood clots due to saponin in the beans' outer skin, aiding in recovery from fatigue, helping to reduce swelling, ease constipation, etc., and it become a highly prized food among the ruling classes throughout many East Asian countries. The beans were introduced to Japan around the 3rd century, and cultivation began there about the 8th century.

Sekihan—A Sacred Offering

Sekihan ( seki=red color, han=cooked rice), is one of the typical ways to cook with azuki. This rice dish is made by preparing partially cooked azuki and glutinous rice (sometimes a bit of regular rice is added as well, but proportions differ depending on the region) together, and is usually served at festivals, celebratory events, and the like. Individual households serve it as well for special personal occasions such as the birth of a baby, entrance to or graduation from school, birthdays, coming of age ceremonies, retirement, etc. The rice gains a lovely pink color due to cooking it with some of the liquid that the azuki have been boiled in.

Long cherished in both China and Japan, the color red was seen as a metaphor for the life force, and was believed to embody mystical power that would ward off evil. In those long ago days, akamai, an ancient variety of rice with reddish color (aka also meant red color, mai usually referring to uncooked rice grains) was cooked and offered as an oblation to the sacred spirits. We can trace the later development and use of sekihan to akamai. The rather low yield and unpleasant flavor of akamai soon led to reduction in cultivation, but at about the same time in Japan, the evolution of rice growing and selective breeding techniques resulted in a stable and flavorful rice crop known as japonica rice, or premium short grain rice, and it was this japonica which took the place of akamai. But because japonica is white, it could not used as a sacred offering, as it was deeply rooted in the psyche of the Japanese to use something colored red. Therefore, about mid-Edo period, someone thought to cook japonica rice with azuki to produce the proper color. It was this rice, now called sekihan (even though it was likely not made with glutinous rice), that was now commonly used as the celebratory food for auspicious events, ceremonies, etc., as well as becoming part of the diet of the common folk, and remains so to this day. Found to be quite delicious, this combo of japonica rice and nutrient rich azuki also served to protect against beriberi, a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency that plagued many Japanese of that time.

Azuki in Sweets

Nowadays, what we call anko, or an, is cooked azuki mixed with sugar and made into either a smooth or chunky paste-like consistency. The word an, however, originally came from China, and referred to any filling, usually meat or vegetable, or a mix thereof, that was enclosed in a dough wrapper. This type of an arrived in Japan long ago, before the Edo period, and for the Japanese people of those days, who didn't have the custom of eating meat (especially the Buddhist monks who weren't allowed to consume animal flesh), azuki beans were a healthy and convenient alternative to meat. The seasoning for an at that time was salt. As the years went by, an began to be cooked with sugar, which still was an extremely expensive and rare imported commodity, and savory an fell out of favor. Zenzai, a sweet soup made with cooked azuki sweetened with precious sugar was enjoyed by the upper classes. It was during mid-Edo that sugar became available to ordinary folk, thanks to domestic production. With some refinements, the mixture of azuki and sugar morphed into the thickened paste that we know today as anko/an and burst onto the wagashi (Japanese traditional sweets) scene, procuring a permanent place in the hearts and stomachs of the people. It gained wide use as an indispensable part of the tea ritual which became popular during the Edo period. It is interesting to note that, while not clearly documented, eating azuki had been said to have a calming effect, and this might have been part of its popularity.

The two most well-known versions of an are tsubu-an (chunky textured, with partially crushed beans, or beans left intact) and koshi-an (smooth textured, like a puree, with bean skins removed). Some common uses for either kind are: manju, mochi (daifuku, dango, ohagi, etc.), sweet breads or buns (anpan, an-donuts), dorayaki, yokan, taiyaki—the list goes deliciously on! It is also used in popsicles, ice cream, or as a luscious topping for shave ice! High in protein, low in fat, nutritionally well-balanced azuki sweets could most certainly be called healthy sweet treats!

Good…And Good For You Azuki!

These little beans are a diverse and well-balanced treasure house of nutrition that, when eaten daily, can contribute to good health maintenance. Just check out the main nutrients!

Protein—The main component of azuki are carbohydrates, but they also contain the highest protein content and lowest fat content among various type of beans. These proteins are made up of amino acids which necessary for building and repair of body tissues but are not manufactured by our bodies.

Vitamins—Azuki contain a good deal of B vitamins, all of which help convert food into fuel, among other functions, including B1 (thiamine), which generates energy from carbohydrates, B2 (riboflavin), which helps to maintain good skin health, B6 (pyridoxine), which aids in fatigue recovery, and others. Smaller amounts of B9 (folic acid) and vitamin E are also present.

Minerals—Azuki may help in preventing high blood pressure, swelling and the like due to potassium, which encourages excretion of sodium. They are also said to improve anemia and reduce sensitivity to the cold because of their high iron and phosphorus contents.

Dietary Fiber—Azuki contain several times over the amount of fiber found in foods known for their high fiber content, such as burdock root and wakame. Rich in both insoluble and soluble fiber, they aid in preventing constipation, and lowering cholesterol and blood sugar.

Polyphenols—These are what give plants their bitter flavors and/or pigments. Think: isoflavones in soybeans, catechins in tea, anthocyanins in red wine, etc. Known as agents that inhibit free radicals and have antioxidative effects, they are now also thought to help prevent certain lifestyle diseases and symptoms of aging. Anthocyanin, present in the red skin, in amounts said to be 1.5 times greater than in red wine. Furthermore, when sugar is added to cooked azuki during the manufacture of anko, melanoidin is generated, and this substance is reported to have antioxidative properties as well.

Saponins—a naturally occurring compound in legumes, they are found in plentiful amounts in the soaking or cooking water of azuki, and are said to have, aside from a diuretic effect, inhibiting effects on cholesterol, triglycerides, and production of blood clots.

Azuki are revered in Japan for their low calorie and high nutritional balance—the epitome of "healthy foods." Starting with the renowned azuki from Hokkaido, Japan, Marukai has plenty of dried azuki—and for those of us with less time, prepared canned anko (smooth or chunky) is also available. To tempt your fancy, there is also a scrumptious assortment of sweets made with azuki, including daifuku, dorayaki, ice cream and much, much more!

Now, for those of you who still can't quite imagine how sweetened beans could be a delicious treat, go ahead and give them a try! Over 400 years as Japan's favorite sweet, in so many variations, just can't be wrong! And maybe you'll come up with a new way to enjoy azuki on your own. How about spreading some anko on hot buttered toast instead of jam? Or as a topping on a banana split? Wait…let me get my spoon!