A Short Guide to Red Bean Paste: The Sweet Essence of East Asia

Oct 31, 2019 | China, Japan, KariA, Taste, Trending

Japan’s Iconic ‘Doremon’ – Famous for Loving the Dorayaki Red Bean Cake ©BFLV

Bean paste comes in many shapes and forms but one thing is constant: the ingredient is a special and meaningful component of different East Asian cultures 

Red bean paste, also known as an or anko, is a popular East Asian treat that is made from boiled azuki beans and used for many traditional confections and dishes. It is a key ingredient in many Japanese snacks as the nation has a strong affinity towards the paste. To make red bean paste, one only needs four ingredients: beans, sugar, oil and water. The process is fairly simple. The beans must be boiled in water for an hour on low heat. Once softened, they must be blended and returned to the pan where oil and sugar join the mix. Cook it until it starts to thicken, and voila! Easy and delicious.

The origin of red bean paste dates back to the Heian period when Chinese travelers visited Japan with recipes for steamed buns. Japan adopted the recipe and incorporated meat and vegetables, however, Buddhist priests were unable to eat the meat-filled buns so they opted for a substitute of boiled azuki beans. The beans only began to be sweetened during the Muromachi period when Dutch traders started importing sugar to Japan. The steamed buns are known as manjū and the recipe is well-loved in Japan to this day.

‘Tofu Flower’ with Red Bean – Yee Shun Milk Co Macau ©CityFoodsters

They say that, back in the day, perfecting the texture and taste of the manjū was a monumental achievement and to get there one would need 10 years of constant training. It was also considered to be a luxury food that only people with nobility could eat. In present times, with its easy accessibility and the mass production that comes along with it, it has become a norm in Japan. But this does not make it any less special in people’s hearts (and stomachs).

Types of Red Bean Paste:

There are two types of red bean paste: mashed and smooth. The mashed paste, also known as tsubuan, is made by crushing the red bean paste enough to make it coarse but lumpy enough to still contain whole or broken beans in the mixture. In Korea, this process is called patso

The smooth paste is known as koshian and the traditional way to make it is to mash the beans and pass it through a sieve to remove any remnants. Presently, it is acceptable to continue mashing the beans until it is a purée. This process takes a little more work than the mashed paste but the results are favorable. Koshian is the most common and preferred method of red bean paste.

Red Bean Paste Dishes and their Cultural Significance:

Japan makes the most out of red bean paste compared to any other country in the world. The paste is incorporated in many staple dishes. One of the most common dishes is daifuku. Daifuku is a soft rice cake, also referred to as mochi, with a sweet bean paste filling. It will harden if it is exposed for too long so it must be eaten quickly. No qualms here! Another favorite is Taiyaki, a fish-shaped snack made of batter and filled with red bean paste. It is considered a must-try when visiting Japan. Once again, eat it quickly while the batter’s still warm and get that sweet gooey paste. 

China’s relationship with adzuki beans is a historical one. It has been acknowledged for centuries as traditional medicine. According to Chinese literature, the kidneys symbolize the emotion of fear. It is said that adzuki beans greatly benefit the kidneys, and thus, the beans have the power to give humans strength. Have you ever had the ever-famous Chinese mooncake? If so, you’ve most likely already gotten a taste of China’s red bean paste. Enjoy that taste of courage.

Assorted Mooncakes ©Ulterior Epicure

Koreans traditionally believe that red beans ward off evil spirits and entities, once again proving to be a vessel of strength towards darkness. This is because the redness of the beans symbolizes yang energy which expels wickedness and infectious diseases. A popular Korean snack with red bean paste is chapssaltteok which is basically the Korean version of Japan’s daifuku. It is regarded as a symbol of good luck and fortune, making it a popular gift to students. 

Isn’t it amazing how one little component can hold such great versatility and value? Taste the essence and beauty of Asia with this historical and cultural wonder!

Limited Edition Kitkats with Red Bean – Japan ©Karl Baron