Azuki

THE MIGHTY LITTLE RED BEAN

More polyphenols than red wine, abundant in fiber and minerals-the little brownish-red beans, azuki, are considered to be the second most important legume in Japan after soybeans. After they entered Japanese culture, they had their own unique evolution, or "Japanization", which in turn influenced other cultures. Even people unfamiliar with the word ozuki probably have heard of "red bean ice cream" and there are likely more than a few who have enjoyed that cool, creamy dessert. But when first hearing about cooked beans mixed with sugar, undoubtedly there were folks who thought hmmm...!? However in Japanese food culture, delicious sweet red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is a much loved and indispensable ingredient in Japanese confections. Let's find out where these little red beans came from, and how they earned such an important position in Japanese cuisine!

AZUKI BEANS ARE...?

Azuki, a member ofthe legume family, is an annual vine. Said to have originated in East Asia, it was discovered in its cultivated, or domestic form, and, interestingly enough, has no known wild counterpart. As documented in an ancient Chinese pharmaceutical text, the broth from cooking the beans was used as a counterpoison. Via word of mouth, azuki became known as a medicinally beneficial food, said to prevent the formation of blood clots due to saponin in the beans‘ outer skin, aiding in recovery from fatigue, helping to reduce swelling, ease constipation, etc., and it became a highly prized food among the ruling classes throughout many East Asian countries. The beans were introduced to Japan around the 3rd century, and cultivation began there about the 8th century.

AZUKI IN SWEETS

Nowadays, what we call anko, or on, is cooked azuki mixed with sugar and made into either a smooth or chunky paste-like consistency. The word on, however, originally came from China, and referred to any filling, usually meat or vegetable, or a mix thereof, that was enclosed in a dough wrapper. This type of on arrived in Japan long ago, before the Edo period, and for the Japanese people ofthose days, who didn't have the custom of eating meat (especially the Buddhist monks who weren't allowed to consume animal flesh), azuki beans were a healthy and convenient alternative. The seasoning for on at that time was salt. As the years went by, on began to be cooked with sugar, which still was an extremely expensive and rare imported commodity, and savory on fell out of favor. Zenzai, a sweet soup made with cooked azuki sweetened with precious sugar was enjoyed by the upper classes. It was during mid-Edo that sugar became available to ordinary folk, thanks to domestic production. With some refinements, the mixture of azuki and sugar morphed into the thickened paste that we know today as anko/an and burst onto the wagashi (Japanese traditional sweets) scene, procuring a permanent place in the hearts and stomachs ofthe people. It gained wide use as an indispensable part of the tea ritual which became popular during the Edo period. It is interesting to note that, while not clearly documented, eating azuki had been said to have a calming effect, and this might have been part of its popularity. The two most well- known versions of on are tsubu-on (chunky textured, with partially crushed beans, or beans left intact) and koshian (smooth textured, like a puree, with bean skins removed). Some common uses for either kind are: monju, mochi (daifuku, dango, ohagi, etc.), sweet breads or buns (anpan, on-donuts), dorayaki, yokon, taiyaki-the list goes deliciously on! lt is also used in popsicles, ice cream, or as a luscious topping for shave ice! High in protein, low in fat, nutritionally well-balanced azuki sweets could most certainly be called healthy sweet treats!

GOOD...AND GOOD FOR YOU AZUKI!

These little beans are a diverse and well-balanced treasure house of nutrition that, when eaten daily, can contribute to good health maintenance. Just check out the main nutrients!

Protein-The main component of ozuki are carbohydrates, but they also contain the highest protein content and lowest fat content among various type of beans. These proteins are made up of amino acids which are necessary for building and repair of body tissues but are not manufactured by ourbodies.

Vitamins-Azuki contain a good deal of B vitamins, al. ofwhich help convert food into fuel, among other functions, including Bl (thiamine), which generates energy from carbohydrates, B2 (riboflavin), which helps to maintain good skin health, B6 (pyridoxine), which aids in fatigue recovery, and others. Smaller amounts of B9 (folic acid) and vitamin E are also present.

Minerals-Azuki may help in preventing high blood pressure, swelling and the like due to potassium, which encourages excretion of sodium. They are also said to improve anemia and reduce sensitivity to the cold because oftheir high iron and phosphorus contents.

Dietary Fiber-Azuki contain several times over the amount offiber found in foods known for their high fiber content, such as burdock root and wokome. Rich in both insoluble and soluble fiber, they aid in preventing constipation, and lowering cholesterol and blood sugar.

Polyphenols-These are what give plants their bitter flavors and/or pigments. Think: isofiavones in soybeans, catechins in tea, anthocyanins in red wine, etc. Known as agents that inhibit free radicals and have antioxidative effects, they are now also thought the manufacture of anko, melanoidin is generated, and this substance is reported to have antioxidative properties as well. Saponins-naturally occurring compounds in legumes, they are found in plentiful amounts in the soaking or cooking water of azuki, and are said to have, aside from a diuretic effect, inhibiting effects on cholesterol, triglycerides, and production of blood clots. Azuki are revered in Japan for their low calorie and high nutritional balance-the epitome of "healthy foods." Starting with the renowned azuki from Hokkaido, Japan, Marukai has plenty of dried azuki'-and for those of us with less time, prepared canned anko (smooth or chunky) is also available. To tempt your fancy, there is also a scrumptious assortment of sweets made with azuki, including daifuku, dorayaki, ice cream and much, much more! Now, for those of you who still can't quite imagine how sweetened beans could be a delicious treat, go ahead and give them a try! Over 400 years as Japan's favorite sweet, in so many variations,just can't be wrong! And maybe you'll come up with a new way to enjoy azuki on your own. How about spreading some anko on hot buttered toast instead of jam? Or as a topping on a banana split? Wait...let me get my spoon!