"Anko": Japanese sweet red bean paste

Sweet red bean paste, called an or anko , is commonly used as a garnish in many Japanese desserts.

The anko  (or more formally “year”) is a sweet red bean paste generally obtained from beans azuki boiled. It is used in a wide range of Japanese sweets ( wagashi ) and Western-style sweets. This Japanese taste places the red azuki bean in second place in the ranking of the most consumed beans in Japan, after soybeans.

From azuki to anko

The origins of anko can be traced back to the Heian period (794–1185), when travelers arrived from China with recipes for steamed breads made from wheat flour or rice. Known in Japanese as manju , they were – and still are – stuffed with meat or vegetables. However, Buddhist priests, who are traditionally vegetarians, preferred to garnishes like pork and chicken boiled azuki beans .

It was during the Muromachi period (1333-1568) that the sweet red bean paste made its appearance. But it was not until the Edo period (1603-1868), when Dutch traders began to regularly import sugar into Japan, that Japanese anko- based confectionery , especially those used during the tea ceremony , are anchored in the eating habits of the Japanese. Mastering the art of its preparation was an extremely difficult task, requiring at least 10 years of constant training from a chef. Today things have gotten simpler, with anko being mass produced and readily available in any supermarket.

The anko in all its forms

This sweet red bean paste is usually divided into two varieties: koshi-an , smoothed with a sieve, and tsubu-an where the red beans are left as is. The anko can be obtained from beans azuki but also chestnuts or sweet potatoes. There are also varieties flavored with sesame powder,or miso .

Koshian, obtained by passing red bean paste through a sieve.

The koshi-an , obtained by passing the red bean paste through a sieve

Below we present various Japanese specialties garnished with sweet red bean paste anko .

The dessert called sakura mochi.  It is topped with koshian, a red bean paste pressed through a fine sieve, and covered with a rice paste.  It is often appreciated on the occasion of the girls' day on March 3.

The dessert called sakura mochi . It is garnished with koshi-an and covered with a rice paste. It is often appreciated on the occasion of the girls’ day on March 3.

Dorayaki : Very popular with children after school, this is anko sandwiched between two pancakes like a castella cake . The dorayaki are in no doubt think of manga fans and anime cat-robot Fujiko F. Fujio, Doraemon , which is the favorite dessert.

Coffee, tea or milk with your dorayaki?

Coffee, tea or milk to accompany your dorayaki ?

Tai-yaki : they get their name from their shape, a sea bream ( tai in Japanese). The dough is toasted in two iron molds, and overflows with bean paste. The tai-yaki are better hot. It can also be found in the form of an obanyaki in the shape of a cookie, a koban-yaki , smaller, or even a ningyô-yaki , in the shape of a doll.

The sea bream form of taiyaki is a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds.  A question often comes up in the mouths of the Japanese: eat the head first, topped with the year, or the tail, with a crispy texture?

The tai-yaki . A question often comes up in the mouths of the Japanese: eat the head first, topped with anko , or the tail, with a crispy texture?

Daifuku : These chewy pastries are actually made with mochi , crushed sticky rice stuffed with bean paste. The outer layer of mochi is often mixed with azuki , black soy, or mugwort ( yomogi ) for a daifuku that is even richer in flavor and complex in consistency.

Mame daifuku with azuki incorporated into the outer layer of the mochi

Daifuku with azuki beans incorporated into the outer layer of mochi

Kintsuba : this pastry is simply sweet red bean paste covered with a thin layer of wheat flour paste.

The kintsuba is a treat for lovers

The kintsuba is a treat for lovers of red beans.

Monaka : it consists of a thin and light rice wafer filled with anko . It can be found in different sizes and shapes.

A monaka decorated with a chrysanthemum pattern

Two monaka decorated with a chrysanthemum pattern

The anko : to taste without moderation

The anko can also enhance other Japanese pastries and sweets. For example, it can be found on dango , kinds of mochi balls made from glutinous rice flour stuck on a skewer, and other delicious fruity desserts like anmitsu . But it can just as well be eaten simply on toast with butter, or add the little touch that was missing to a shaved kakigôri ice cream or, why not, to a vanilla ice cream.

Dango skewers covered with a generous layer of koshian.
Dango skewers covered with a generous layer of koshi-an
Shiruko: oven-roasted mochi cakes
uko : oven-toasted mochi cakes bathed in anko soup
Anmitsu: it consists of a multitude of fruits such as tangerine, pineapple and maraschino cherries.  Don't worry, there are also typical Japanese flavors such as kuromitsu, shiratama dango and, of course, that of the year.

The anmitsu : it consists of a multitude of fruits such as tangerine, pineapple and maraschino cherries. Don’t worry, it also has typical Japanese flavors like kuromitsu sugar syrup , mochi dumplings called shiratama dango and, of course, anko .

Anpan: a small bread filled with sweet red bean paste anko

An-pan : a small bread filled with anko

Shaved ice kakigôri Ujikintoki: it consists of tsubuan, matcha green tea and sweet syrup.

Green tea kakigôri shaved ice , a dessert called Uji kintoki . It is made with tsubu-an , matcha green tea, and sweet syrup.

Another dessert, more unusual certainly, where we find the famous anko pastry : zunda mochi . This time around, it’s a type of anko made from edamame soy beans . This dessert is traditional from Miyagi Prefecture. (See our linked article)

Zunda mochi, its green color is so bright that it already whets your appetite.

The Zunda mochi , its green color is so bright it puts already appetite.

The ohagi , he is a traditional Japanese pastry that is eaten traditionally around the spring and autumn equinoxes. In Japan, this period which lasts a week is called higan . On this occasion, many people visit the graves of their loved ones . Also called bota-mochi , ohagi is a simple dessert consisting only of sticky rice covered with anko . Those who pray often place them as offerings on the graves of their loved ones or in front of their Buddhist altar at home. But ohagi can be enjoyed at any time of the year.

Ohagi, a very traditional Japanese pastry
The ohagi , a very traditional Japanese pastry

Anko sweet red bean paste is the essential ingredient in any traditional Japanese pastry. But it is also increasingly appearing in various desserts and snacks, to the delight of young and old alike.

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