The adzuki bean is a legume used frequently in Japan as a filling or topping for a variety of cakes and treats. The beans are boiled and soaked in sugary water and often grounded to a paste to make what is known as anko, or red bean paste. Since many Brits are brought up from a young age on Heinz Baked Beans, adzuki beans can be a scary departure from the world of the savory bean. The snacks they are used in are an acquired taste and require a lengthy stay in Japan (preferably with little access to Western chocolate) to truly appreciate their flavour.
Engelbert Kaempfer, who we’ve met a few times in these Japan-related blogs (see: Shinto, Katakana, Samurai) describes a cake recipe which includes adzuki beans in his book The History of Japan (1727). It’s here he writes, “The mugwort-leaves are..mix’d with boil’d rice and Adsuki, or red beans grossly powder’d, and so bak’d into cakes. Was kaempfer a fan of adzuki bean cakes? We can’t know for sure, but the lack of any positive comment on the cakes suggests not.
Once you get your head around the fact you are eating sugar-soaked beans, there are some fun snacks available. Dorayaki cakes are made of two small American style pancakes stuck together with a mushy sweet adzuki bean filling. Dafukumochi is also a winner: a ball of rice pounded until it’s a glutinous blob which is then filled with mashed sweet adzuki beans to make a gloopy, bitesize snack. Many foreign tourists in Japan struggle to make it through to the last bite of these treats, but if you ever find yourself at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and your host hands you a beautifully presented wagashi cake (filled with mashed adzuki beans) to go with your green tea, make sure you see your cake through to the end. The bitter green tea served in a tea ceremony does actually contrast nicely with the sweet adzuki and its worth being open minded about these new flavours to really take in this unique cultural experience.
If you can get used to adzuki beans and its different textures, it actually does make a nice, lighter alternative to calorie-heavy Western sweets. It might not be the most popular souvenir you bring back from Japan, but it never hurts to challenge your palate.