Thursday, January 5, 2012

Azuki? The Small Red Bean

The delicious and versatile small red bean known in Japan as azuki has long occupied an honored place in Asian cuisine where it is often the highlight of celebratory meals. First domesticated in the Himalayas, azuki, or hong xiao dou ("red small bean") in Mandarin, is in the same family as soy and mung beans. Introduced to the Korean Peninsula around 1000 BCE, azuki arrived a bit later in Japan, where it has remained a beloved food ever since.

Traditional Eastern Medicine considers the azuki a strengthening food with medicinal properties. It may be eaten during the cold winter months as a protective measure to support overall health; it would also be recommended for those with a lack of vitality and vulnerability to cold. In western terms, the azuki is highly nutritious and is a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

When sweetened, the mild flavor of azuki is transformed into a prized ingredient featured in a variety of Asian desserts. The beans are cooked, sweetened and mashed into a paste called an, which is used as a filling for buns and tea cakes. Taiyaki, a fish- shaped waffle stuffed with an can be savored fresh from the griddle in San Francisco's Japan Town. Osekihan, "honorable red rice" is made with azuki and sweet rice and is served on special occasions. The beans lend the rice a delicate pink hue which is reminiscent of cherry blossoms.

Many natural food stores and ethnic markets carry azuki. Select beans that are brightly colored, plump and unblemished. Simple recipes are best when cooking azuki, to allow the true taste of the small red bean to shine. Recipe to follow!