Japan isn’t that big on dessert. You can’t expect much after a meal except some fresh fruit (not that there’s anything disappointing about fresh fruit. It’s always perfect here!) But for dessert connoisseurs, this is not the place to find chocolate torte or apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Instead, you may find yourself eating a small piece of steamed sweet potato cake with your green tea. Or a little scoop of green tea ice cream (which I’m actually not a fan of, unfortunately. I’ve given it many chances, but I just can’t stand the stuff). Or maybe you’ll be served several cubes of clear jello (called kanten jelly) with a square of sweet red bean paste inside. Yep, beans for dessert!
Although it might sound a little bizarre to a Western palate (and especially in California where we associate beans with really good Mexican food), sweet red azuki beans are growing on us (no, not literally), and have become one of our favorite desserts in Japan. You can buy cans of them at every grocery store here. Azuki beans have lots of starch, protein, fiber and vitamin B1. These are some tempting ideas that we’ve seen here:
In the summer, they buy these cool shaved-ice machines (usually they’re shaped like cartoon characters like Snoopy, or an animal like an elephant, so the shaved ice falls out of his trunk or something along those lines). Then they pour sweetened condensed milk over a bowl of shaved ice and top with sweet Azuki beans. Japanese kids love it, and so do I.
They also make a paste out of the beans and spread it on little pancakes.
And there’s a special traditional New Years dessert called zenzai, slow-cooked Azuki beans sweetened with sugar and served with little dumplings made from glutinous rice (called mochi).
We simply simmered the beans with water, a little sugar and salt and enjoyed them by themselves. If you can find canned Azuki beans at an Asian food store, it’s worth trying them out. And you can prove to your diners that beans are a perfectly acceptable dessert.
1 can of red Azuki beans
200 cc water (a little less than 1 cup)
1/4 tsp. salt
sugar to taste (the beans from the can are already pretty sweet)
- Simmer for 10-15 minutes until thick, and cool before serving.