Welcome to part 3 of my Wagashi series! If you read my previous two blog posts about Japanese sweets, you might have noticed that one ingredient appears particularly often – anko, or red bean paste.
Whichever tasty treat you try in Japan, chances are you’ll find a version of it with red or white bean paste. This sweet filling is not something you get to try every day in the west. But in the Far East, sweet bean paste is one of the favorite staple sweet foods.
Whether you’re visiting Japan’s street food stalls, ordering a care package of sweets, or you want to try an exotic recipe at home, sweet bean pastes anko and shiro-an are fantastic places to start exploring Japanese sweets.
Let’s jump right in!
Anko (餡子) – Sweet Red Bean Paste
Rich dark red-purple color, deep beany flavor with a subtle sweetness, and a soft creamy or a heavier chunky texture. Anko – sweet red bean paste – is Japan’s favorite sweet filling.
This paste has a long history in Asian cuisine, and it’s quite simple to make. It’s made of a small, red type of bean called azuki (小豆) – which literally translates to small beans.
Azuki (also written as adzuki, aduki) has a subtly sweet flavor that reminds of sweet potatoes. Like most beans, it has a creamy texture that is really brought out in the paste.
Cooked and pureed azuki bean is sweetened with sugar that enhances both its taste and shelf life. Azuki prepared this way is called Anko – or sweet red bean paste. The flavor of anko is a rich mix of earthy, nutty, and sweet.
The Various Textures of Anko
Textures vary in anko – you can make it to suit your taste. The amount of processing (through a sieve or a food processor) and whether or not you hull the beans can change the overall texture.
The Japanese recognize three basic anko textures:
Are azuki beans the same as kidney beans?
No, azuki and kidney beans are quite different.
Despite the similar color, azuki and kidney beans have very different flavors. Azuki is naturally sweeter, so it’s suitable for all kinds of confections.
They come from opposite parts of the world, too – kidney beans stem from Central America, and azuki takes root in China.
In addition, azuki beans are small, about half the size of kidney beans, so it’s quite easy to tell them apart.
Shiro-an (白餡) – White Bean Paste
If you don’t like the strong flavor of anko, you may enjoy your wagashi filled with white bean paste, shiro-an. It has a milder bean flavor, so it suits most taste palates.
Shiro-an is usually made using lima beans or butter beans. In Japan, you can find them labeled as Shiro Ingen Mame (白いんげん豆), along with a few other types of beans. However, if these are not available where you are, you can replace them with navy or cannellini beans.
To make shiro-an, white beans are hulled, cooked, pureed, and mixed with sugar.
Just like with anko, chefs use ⅔ to 1 part sugar per 1 part of beans (measured before cooking). Sugar plays a key role in preserving the paste for longer periods of time.
However, unlike anko, shiro-an doesn’t come in various textures. It’s normally pureed into a smooth koshi-an – no skin or chunks left.
Coloring White Bean Paste
Due to its soft white hue, it’s easy to give vivid colors to shiro-an with both natural and artificial food dyes.
Traditionally, the Japanese used bright green matcha, pink cherry blossoms, yellow egg yolk, orange pumpkin puree, and many other natural ingredients to give vibrant flavors and colors to shiro-an wagashi.
Popular Wagashi with Sweet Bean Paste
With the drop in sugar prices in the Edo period of Japanese history, many ways of serving sweetened azuki paste appeared. Craftsmen around the country experimented and offered new and exciting treats. That was just the beginning of the sweet boom in Japan – confectioners keep on creating innovative new sweets to this day. And both white and red bean paste remain central figures in them.
The simplest way of eating red bean paste is amanatto – bite-sized servings of anko covered in granulated sugar. This easy way of serving anko makes for a great snack to have with tea, so it quickly gained popularity.
A confection store was founded by the creator of amanatto, which he first introduced in the 1860s – the business still operates in Tokyo.
Kintsuba is another super-simple recipe you can make with azuki bean paste.
In particular, tsubu-an (the coarse anko with bean skin) is used to make this rectangular or cube-shaped cake. Alternatively, the main ingredient for kintsuba can be sweet potato paste.
Coat bean or potato paste with batter and sugar and cook in a pan for a slightly crispy outer layer.
If you read our introduction to wagashi, you might be familiar with namagashi – delicious and delicate wagashi with high water content. These quickly perishable sweets must behandled with extra care, so they’re usually a treat for specialoccasions.
Some of the most beautifully shaped and colored wagashi resemble natural elements: flowers, leaves, waves, and snowflakes. These intricate confections are an elegant addition to Japanese tea ceremonies.
The top-tier namagashi served at formal tea ceremonies are collectively called jou-namagashi (上生菓子). These exquisite sweets are crafted and served with a lot of attention to detail. Eating jou-namagashi is a unique experience that excites all five senses.
The name is used for different types of sweets, but the most famous examples are nerikiri and yokan.
The central ingredient in nerikiri is shiro-an, white bean paste. It’s mixed with gyuhi (a type of soft mochi) and yam for a delicate, soft flavor. The result is a pale white mass that can be easily mixed with food coloring and shaped.
While primarily made of shiro-an, nerikiri can have a bite of anko on the inside – it’s a pleasant combination.
Jelly is a popular treat in Japan. But instead of gelatin, the Japanese usually use kanten – also known as agar-agar, a jellifying substance made of sea algae.
Yokan is one of the most popular types of jelly in Japan, and its subtle sweetness and texture complement green tea.
The recipe is quite simple – it’s made of red bean paste, sugar, water, and kanten. Despite its simple ingredients, yokan is so revered for its texture and taste that it’s often served at formal tea ceremonies.
This traditional dessert comes in two types that differ in water content. Neri yokan (練羊羹) is firmer and a bit more common, and mizu yokan (水羊羹) contains more water and has a lighter flavor that’s a perfect chilled treat for the summertime.
Anko is the key ingredient in the most popular yokan recipe, but shiro-an is also used often. Along with bean paste and the thickening agent, yokan also comes with chestnuts, persimmons, sweet potatoes, and even figs.
Anko + Pastry = A Heavenly Combo
Dorayaki is a simple dessert – it’s made of two round pieces of sponge cake and red bean paste in between. The sponge cake is quite similar to pancake dough, making for a wonderful, fluffy consistency with a sweet center.
Quite similar to dorayaki, imagawayaki is a type of pancake filled with either anko or shiro-an. This is a widely popular street snack, a must-have at festivals and busy shopping streets. It’s been a popular snack ever since the 18th century, so imagawayaki is definitely a culturally significant wagashi.
Unlike dorayaki, imagawayaki is a single piece of cake filled with anko, made in a specially shaped pan. It’s usually consumed warm, while the crust is still crispy and the bread inside fluffy.
You might have seen them in anime or manga – taiyaki, the fish-shaped cake. This traditional sweet is shaped like tai (鯛), red sea bream, one of the favorite fish in Japan. Taiyaki was first made in Japan in 1909 when its maker chose the red bream shape due to the fish’s popularity among the affluent.
These sweet snacks are a famous combination of batter and anko, though they also come filled with custard cream, cheese, chocolate, or gyoza filling. Taiyaki is an amazing snack to eat on the go – and they taste best right off the grill while the pastry is crispy. You can also buy them pre-packaged.
If you’re a fan of baked or steamed buns with sweet filling, try manju!
These sweet dumplings are made with anko, shiro-an, or chestnut paste with a coating of sweet dough. The bun may be made of wheat, rice, or buckwheat flour, and even kudzu for a jelly twist called Mizu (水, water) manju.
It may seem like a lot of Japanese food falls into the chewy category, but crispy snacks get some love too! Monaka is a good example – anko sandwiched between two crunchy wafer shells made of mochi. In recent decades, ice cream-filled monaka became widely popular too.
The Fantastic Journey through Sweet, Beany Wagashi
Try making azuki bean paste yourself – it’s easy!
This sweet filling is a lovely treat no matter what you combine it with. In Japan, anko is eaten in so many forms and shapes that it’s by far one of the country’s most beloved comfort foods.
That concludes our blog series about wagashi – traditional Japanese sweets. We explored the sweet (and umami) world of rice, beans, agar, and kinako!
I hope you enjoyed reading and got inspired to try some of these delicious Japanese recipes at home!