Azuki   小豆

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Azuki beans are a type of red bean, slightly smaller than those we know in the west

Anko paste is sweet like jam - here it is on toast, a speciality of Nagoya called "ogura toast"

Imagawa-yaki, sweet pancakes filled with anko, are extremely popular in Japan

Anpan - sweet bread rolls filled with anko - are sold in almost all Japanese bakeries

On Miyajima island the momiji manju is everywhere, a maple leaf-shaped pancake filled with anko

Often sold in supermarkets and department stores, ryokan is a sweet jelly made with anko and agar-agar

Azuki flavoured Pepsi - only in Japan!

Magic beans

One of the basic ingredients of traditional Japanese sweets is often one of the most surprising tastes for our western tastebuds...

Azuki are actually a variety of red bean. They are not naturally sweet but are almost exclusively used in baking as anko, an azuki paste cooked and sweetened with sugar. It has a thick, smooth, somewhat pasty texture.

From anko to sekihan

For anko, the azuki are cooked and more or less finely mashed with sugar (or sometimes honey). If the paste is very smooth it's called koshi-an, while a coarser paste which still has some texture is known as tsubu-an.

However, one of the most popular dishes using azuki is not sweet. The dish is called sekihan: rice mixed with azuki beans, eaten during holidays and life milestones (births, weddings, birthdays, national holidays and especially during the New Year). This is because of the association of red and white with the colors of Japan's national flag, representing prosperity and opulence.

Matcha (green tea), kurogoma (sesame), and azuki are all favorite Japanese flavors. Anko is an integral part of many rituals, such as the tea ceremony, during which they serve wagashi (highly refined sweets that can take many forms).

Azuki in use 

Imagawa-yaki
A round and thick pancake, whose two parts are cooked separately in molds, to which anko paste is added during cooking. Many regions have their own specialty. The cake remains the same, but the shape changes. For example in Miyajima, there are momiji (maple leaf) shaped cakes!

Daifuku
Sweet cakes made ​​of mochi filled with anko.

Manju
A cake with the same principle as the daifuku, but the simple dough is not made ​​of mochi but buckwheat and rice flour.

Monaka
A sweet consisting ​​of two thin and crispy waffles stuffed with anko.

Anpan
A sweet bread bun stuffed with anko.

Taiyaki
A very famous sweet treat very similar to the imagawa-yaki but in the shape of a sea bream. Often sold in small shops on the street, both sides of the taiyaki are cooked separately before being assembled with anko inside, which makes the outside crispy and inside fluffy.

Here's how taiyaki are made - they can be filled with other ingredients apart from azuki, of course. Vanilla custard is also popular!

 

Dorayaki
Two small pancakes stuck together and stuffed with anko.

Amanatto 
A small azuki candy cooked in syrup, then dried and rolled in sugar.

Yokan
Anko in jelly made with agar-agar, a red seaweed that has no taste.

Zenzai
A sweet anko soup, often containing a few pieces of mochi.

There are also plenty of somewhat wacky products flavored with red bean, such as Kit Kats, Pepsi or Haagen-Dazs ice cream!

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