Azuki Beans

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

azuki beans (Vigna angularis, also romanized as adzuki) have been cultivated in Japan since the prehistoric period. High in protein, B1, and iron, they are indispensable to Japanese confectionery and even find their way into Western-style baked goods in Japan. Although the color of red azuki is considered auspicious, the English translation “red beans” is a misnomer because there are also white azuki.

Cooked with glutinous rice, the beans provide color and flavor to the celebratory dish Red Rice (sekihan); they can also be cooked in a rice porridge, or mashed up to make a sweet soup called shiruko, to which dango or rice cakes (mochi) may be added—when whole azuki are used, the soup is called zenzai. Azuki, however, truly shine in confectionery. Mashed azuki sweetened with sugar make an, often translated as “bean jam,” the most frequently used filling for sweets like manjū or mochi; an is also used as a topping in traditional confections such as dango. See dango; manjū; and mochi. In recipes for traditional sweets, the consistency of the beans can take two forms: tsubuan retains some of the original shape of azuki in the bean paste, whereas koshian is a smooth paste with the remaining lumps strained away. The confection called yōkan, which entered the diet of Zen monks in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), was originally a vegetarian substitute for mutton. It is made from steamed an, sugar, flour, kudzu starch, and flavorings. The version of the recipe that developed by the nineteenth century substituted agar agar (kanten) for the flour and kudzu starch to create more gelatinous versions, a texture much prized by the Japanese: softer mizuyōkan and firmer neriyōkan. Because yōkan is troublesome to make at home, it is sold at traditional confectioners in long cakes that can be sliced into servings.