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Asia’s love affair with sweet bean preparations

A range of desserts and sweets feature red, black and mung beans in Japan, China, Thailand and beyond

The Japanese daifuku (Istockphoto)
The Japanese daifuku (Istockphoto)

Known multifariously as Girls’ Day, Dolls’ Festival, or Hinamatsuri, every year, the third day of March holds great significance for the Japanese. Celebrated since the dawn of the Heian Period (794-1195), families in Japan wish for the health and prosperity of their daughters (generally up to 10 years old). But this day also has one element that brings to the fore, the Japanese penchant for eating copious amounts of the famed adzuki or red bean in its sweet avatar of anko.

Sweet somethings

This delicacy is the result of stewing the overnight soaked adzuki beans in a sugar syrup and then mashing them till they yield to a form a thick, smooth paste. This paste goes into the sakura mochi that take prime position as the Hinamatsuri day’s de facto treat. These pink-hued sakura mochi rice cakes aremade with pounded glutinous mochi rice, stuffed with the aforementioned anko and covered with pickled cherry blossom leaves. This is because Hinamatsuri always falls during the island nation’s beloved cherry blossom season in early spring.

Seen in other forms of Japanese wagashi—as sweets are called here—the adzuki bean and anko paste is an acquired taste. But one that cannot be avoided if you really wish to get an immersive experience into the nuances of Japanese culture, customs and cuisine.

Similar in appearance and concept to the mochi, daifuku contain pieces of fruit (most commonly, strawberry) coated in anko, at their core and then shrouded by the pillow-y soft pounded mochi rice paste.

The fish-shaped pancakes called taiyaki, on the other hand are similar in construction and appearance to western waffles. The only difference here is that the flour, butter and egg slurry has a blob of anko placed in its belly, before it is baked on the special cast iron taiyaki grill mould made to resemble a tai, or red sea bream.

Chinese takeaway

What’s pertinent to note is that while Hinamatsuri originates from a Chinese doll festival—in which people send dolls down a river to carry away girls’ bad luck and misfortune—the red bean, too, finds common ground in Chinese cuisine in its sweet version. Showing us that it’s not just soy bean derivatives like sweet, silken tofu and bean curd skin that form the cache of bean-based sweets in China.

Think Chinese mooncakes, dou sha bao, and red bean ice; all have an element of the sweet bean. Eaten mainly during the Chinese mid-autumn festival, in China—and all over Asia and the world even where there’s a strong Chinese immigrant population—mooncakes are made from a crumbly, butter cookie base. Inside which is stuffed sweet red bean paste and a piece of salted, preserved duck egg yolk.

The Chinese dou sha bao. (Istockphoto)
The Chinese dou sha bao. (Istockphoto)

Called dou sha bao (the dessert version of a pork char siu bao), these steamed, sweet red bean centred buns are not only found all over China, but also in many East Asian cultures. They are known as jjinppangin South Korea and mushi manju in Japan.Red bean ice, on the other hand, is a summer must-have drink in Hong Kong. A rather recent invention of the early 1970s, the standard ingredients include adzuki beans, light rock sugar syrup, and evaporated milk. It is often topped with ice cream for an indulgent finish.

South East Asian invasion

Similarly, served across The Philippines, from roadside stands to ritzy hotels and fast food chains like the famous Jollibee, halo-halo is to the Pinoy people what falooda is to us desis. This red kidney bean-redolent, cold-savoury-sweet dessert combines the sweetened, stewed beans with shaved ice, thick coconut milk, condensed milk and generous toppings of leche flan (similar to a thick caramel custard), jellied coconut called macapuno and oftentimes salted peanuts.

Interestingly, halo-halo is a representation of a broader spectrum of other South East Asian bean-oriented desserts—like the kidney bean and pandan-flavoured noodle dessert called cendol from Indonesia, and ais kacang from Malaysia. The latter's savoury elements like the kidney bean, creamed corn, and chestnuts are combined with shaved ice to which a sweet component—that comes from either pandan or rose syrup—is added.

All Thai’d up

Co-opting the golden yellow mung bean and black bean into a few of its sweets and desserts, Thai cuisine also pays rich obeisance at the altar of the bean in its non-savoury, -kidney bean avatar. With “rich” being the operative word, the mung bean paste kanom luk chup is a strong tasting sweet always hand sculpted (never moulded) and painted to resemble delicate, miniature fruits and vegetables before being dipped into a shiny glaze made from agar agar jelly. Once the sole prerogative of the royal kitchen pastry chefs who presented these pieces of edible art to the kings and queens, today kanom luk chup can be found at stalls in most food markets across Thailand, glistening in their colourful glory.

The Thai kanom luk chup. (Istockphoto)
The Thai kanom luk chup. (Istockphoto)

Another contender for the strong tasting bean-based Thai dessert is khao neeo tua dam. This tongue-twister of a cold porridge offers a challenge in the taste department. For, it is the sum of its black bean and black sticky rice parts to which a generous splash of sweet-n-salty thick coconut milk is added with a sprinkling of toasted mung beans for a pleasurable crunchy finishing. Proving, that there’s really no escaping the bean here.

Also read | Travelling the world with fried bread

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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