Welcome to Japan! Among the myriad of unique cultural experiences and culinary delights you’ll encounter during your stay, there’s a sweet treat that might be unfamiliar but is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture: azuki (red bean) sweets.
Here’s a guide to understanding and enjoying this fascinating aspect of Japanese cuisine.
Why are there sweet azuki dishes in Japan?
Azuki beans have been cultivated in Japan for thousands of years and are considered one of the nation’s most important crops.
Historically, due to the influence of Buddhism which discouraged the consumption of animal products, there arose a need for vegetarian sources of nutrition.
Azuki beans, being rich in protein and other nutrients, naturally found their place in the Japanese diet.
However, the use of azuki beans in desserts is also connected to their symbolism.
Red is considered a color that wards off evil spirits and disease in Japanese culture, so azuki beans were believed to have protective properties.
Over time, the process of sweetening these beans and turning them into desserts became a culinary art, resulting in a myriad of delectable treats that have become staples in Japan.
How are azuki sweets made?
The foundation of most azuki desserts is anko (sweetened red bean paste).
Making anko involves boiling azuki beans until they’re soft, draining them, and then mashing or grinding them into a paste.
Sugar is then added, and the mixture is further reduced to the desired consistency.
There are primarily two types of anko:
This is a smooth paste made by passing the beans through a sieve to remove the skins.
A chunkier version where the beans are kept whole or partially mashed, retaining some texture.
What types of azuki sweets are there?
Japan boasts a vast array of azuki-based sweets. Here are some of the most popular:
A fish-shaped pastry filled with anko. It’s crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
A chewy rice cake (mochi) filled with anko.
Two fluffy pancakes sandwiching a layer of anko.
Additionally, dorayaki is the favorite treat of Doraemon, a popular character from Japanese manga.
A dessert made of small cubes of agar jelly, often served with anko, fruits, and a sweet syrup.
Steamed buns filled with anko.
A sweet red bean soup often served with mochi.
And many more!
You can purchase Azuki bar ( a sweetened frozen food ) at nearby supermarkets or convenience stores.
We encourage all visitors to try these traditional Japanese sweets during their stay.
While azuki-based desserts might be an acquired taste for some, they offer a delightful insight into the rich history and culture of Japan.
Enjoy your culinary journey!