The first time my boyfriend encountered savory beans, in a pot of chili on his first visit to the US, they seemed strange to him. Growing up in Tokyo, he knew beans as part of dessert. On the other hand, I remember the exotic allure of red bean ice cream when I first tried it at my best friend's 12th birthday party in a Japanese restaurant. Sweet beans?! The ice cream was pale pink, gently earthy, and not too sweet. I've since fallen in love with sweet red beans, know as an, (just as he has burritos). You can buy little cans of anko, or red bean paste at Japanese grocery stores, and it's not hard to make your own.
In Japan, sweet bean paste fills donuts and candies, flavors ice cream or cookies, and gets spread on toast. It's simply a mix of a cooked adzuki beans and sugar. The beans are easy enough to find here, in Asian markets and health food stores. I prefer coarse anko, called tsubuan, for filling donuts, and smooth koshian for macarons. Either is tasty mixed into vanilla ice cream or spread on buttery brioche. If you haven't already fallen in love with anko, take yourself on a date to a Japanese bakery (if you can) and try it! Here's my recipe for making it yourself.
- 1/2 pound adzuki beans (just over 1 cup)
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Rinse and drain the adzuki beans, and pick through them. Discard any broken beans or gravel. Transfer them, still wet, to a saucepan. Add the baking powder. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the beans are dry, 2-3 minutes.
2. Cover the beans with with water, by about two inches. Bring to a simmer over high heat, and then adjust the heat to cook at a steady simmer until the beans become tender enough to eat, but not mushy. The cooking time may vary greatly depending on how fresh the beans are, anywhere from 30-90 minutes. Stir them occasionally, and add more water as needed to keep them covered.
3. When the beans are tender, you'll want them just barely covered by water; pour a little off if necessary. Add the sugar and salt, and continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring more frequently, until the beans crush easily with a spoon.
4. Transfer the beans to a blender or food processor. To make tsubuan pulse a few times, so the beans are broken into a coarse paste. To make koshian puree the beans into a smooth paste. In eather case, you can add a few teaspoons of water to loosen the paste if it seems too thick to blend; keep in mind that the paste will thicken as it cools.
5. Transfer the paste to the container you will store it in. Press a pice of plastic wrap onto the surface, and poke a few holes in it (this will allow it to cool quickly without drying out). Refrigerate, covering completely once it's cool. This will keep well for about a week. If you can't use it up in that time, freeze a portion for up to three months.