Starting with the Basics of Traditional Japanese Confections: Anko or Sweet Red Bean Paste

Mochi - Tamako Market 01 - 01Learning how to make traditional Japanese sweets can be a daunting prospect, especially if you’re unfamiliar with them, but like anything, starting with the basics and taking things one step at a time can make the whole learning process easier and less complicated… Some of the sweets I’m talking about are taiyaki, anpan, daifuku, dorayaki,and  manju….. But, besides all of these being Japanese sweets that have appeared in numerous anime over the years, what do they all have in common?  Well, they all contain anko, or sweet red bean paste!

Because of its versatility and widespread use, anko is certainly among the most essential ingredients of Japanese sweets (or, really Asian sweets in general)! Since it’s found in so many desserts, both traditional and contemporary alike, learning how to make it yourself is a great starting place when learning how to make Japanese confections.

About the recipe:

Mochi - Tamako Market 01 - 02While anko can be bought pre-made in can, the taste really can’t compare to the fresh, homemade stuff that can be made right in your kitchen, with a little effort… It’s really worth it to make anko yourself, if you have the time and can find the ingredients!

The recipe I’ll be sharing today is for tsubu-an (tsubu meaning grain), which is made from red azuki beans that are cooked until soft, and not pureed. This type of anko contains the skins of the beans, and has a rich and deep flavour. Because the tsubu-an is not pureed or passed through a sieve, the paste will contain some whole beans, and will have a chunky texture.

Pureed anko that is passed through a sieve to create a finely textured and smooth paste is called koshi-an. It’s very time consuming to make… And, if you want something a bit in the middle, you can make tsubushi-an, which is where the cooked beans are mashed.

Anko - Kannon 01I encourage you to make anko well ahead of time, possibly the day or days before you plan to use it in a recipe. This is mainly because the anko takes some time to make, and most of the time it must be cool before it can be incorporated into another recipe.

Anko also freezes well, which is great for any sudden moments of inspiration or if you have some leftover and unused from another recipe. Just place it into a container or wrap up the anko in 1 cup (or similar) portions using plastic wrap. To use, just defrost it on the counter and use as needed.

A fair warning about this recipe: making anko takes time, and there are quite a number of very specific steps that need to be followed. My advice to those making anko for the first time is to read the recipe carefully, including this explanatory section about the recipe, so that you understand all the steps – not only what to do, but why it should be done as well. Also, take your time making anko! There’s no need to rush.

Spirited Away - Steamed Anpan - 03To begin, you must wash and soak the beans in cold water before cooking them, discarding any discoloured, broken, or damaged beans. Only soak the beans if you use dried azuki beans, as fresh beans do not need to be soaked. Soaking the beans will begin to hydrate the beans, help make them softer, and prevent the skins from breaking too much when you cook them.

When cooking the beans, cold water is added to the pot in two batches. The cold water will enter through the skins of the beans, and is meant to help make the beans softer. The cold water will also help to regulate the temperature of the pot, and the speed at which the beans are cooked. Cooking the beans too quickly at too high a temperature will result in cracked skins, which will in turn affect the taste and consistency of the anko, so be careful to keep an eye on the pot during this process.

Spirited Away - Steamed Anpan - 02After the cold water and cooking, the beans are rinsed in cold water in order to remove any bitterness from the beans. To do so, simply place the beans in a colander and rinse with fresh, cold water. Do not let the beans dry out! They should always be covered with water to prevent the skins from cracking. The amount of rinsing of the beans also determines the taste of the anko: a longer rinse will result in a milder, but blander taste. A shorter rinse will produce a more intense flavor.

In the second cooking session for the beans, don’t let the beans move around or “dance” in the pot too much, in order to prevent (you guessed it!) the skins from cracking. By just barely covering the beans with water, their movement can be restricted. To really make sure they don’t move around in the pot, place a piece of parchment paper with a small slit cut in the center (to help release any steam) directly on top of the beans in the pot. Put a smaller pot lid on top of the parchment to ensure that the beans are weighted down.

The sweetness of the anko is determined by the amount of sugar. The recipe lists an amount that ranges from 350 – 500 g of sugar (between about 1 3/4 cups to 2 1/2 cups), so depending on your tastes, you may want to put in the lower or higher amount. I don’t recommend putting too much less 350 g because the texture will not be correct.

About the ingredients:

Azuki BeansAzuki beans (also known as adzuki beans) are small red beans that are generally cooked down into a paste, called anko, and used as a filling or topping in a variety of sweet confections. Azuki beans are generally available in Asian groceries, as well as some specialty or bulk food shops.

White granulated sugar is recommended for this recipe, because it is widely available and it will sweeten the anko without overpowering it with other flavours. For this reason, do not use brown sugars, raw sugars, or the like, because these sugars will change the flavour of the anko.

Baking soda is an optional ingredient that is used to make the skins of the beans soft while improving the texture of the anko. Be careful about when it is added, as it could ruin the anko.

The recipe:

Makes about 2 lb anko

Ingredients:

  • 500 g (~2 cups) azuki beans
  • 350g-500 g (~1 3/4 – 2 1/2 cups) white granulated sugar
  • Water
  • 2 tsp baking soda

Directions:

1. Wash the azuki beans in cold water, removing any damaged or discoloured beans. Submerge the beans in plenty of water, and soak them for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

During this soaking period, add 1 tsp baking soda when the skins of the beans become firm and dark (optional).

2. Drain the beans of their soaking water, and place them in a pot. The beans should be barely covered with fresh water. At this point, 1 tsp baking soda can also be added to the water (optional).

Bring to boil over medium heat, and when the beans begin to get wrinkles, add 300 ml of cold water. Bring back to a boil and again add 300 ml of cold water.

Let cook over medium heat, watching the beans carefully, until they are swollen to their maximum, about 40-50 minutes. The beans should be still firm, and the skins should not be cracked.

3. Gently drain and rinse the beans in fresh, cold water. Do not let the beans dry out, always ensuring they are covered with water. Place the beans back in the pot with enough cold water to just cover the beans. Let stand for 5 minutes.

4. Bring the beans to a simmer and place a piece of parchment paper with a slit cut in its center directly on the surface of the beans. Place a lid on top of the parchment to weigh down the beans and prevent excessive movement that might cause the skins to crack. Simmer for 50-60 minutes, or until the beans are very soft and easily crushed. Carefully regulate the heat, and add hot water if the cooking liquid as needed to keep the beans just covered.

5. When the beans are cooked, drain the beans into a colinder lined with chesse cloth or a clean, lint-free towel. After the majority of the water has drained out, gather the ends of the cloth in your hands and twist it to gradually and gently squeeze out the excess water, until a small well made with your finger is able to keep its shape.

6. Place half of the drained beans and all of the sugar (350g for slightly less sweetness or 500g for more sweetness) in a heavy pot with a thick bottom. Cook on high heat, gently stirring the beans to dissolve the sugar. Cook for a couple minutes before adding the second half of the beans.

7. Cook the anko on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring often in a back and forth motion rather than a circular motion, being careful not to crush or burn the beans. The anko will gradually begin to smell sweet, and become thickened and shiny. When a line drawn through the anko reveals the bottom of the pot briefly, remove from the heat.

8. Place the anko on a tray in small portions to cool. The anko will continue to thicken as it cools.

When cool, freeze for later use, or keep covered in the fridge until ready to use as directed in a recipe requiring anko.

Source: Wagashi Maniac

Anpanman

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