Red bean paste or anko (あんこ) in Japanese, is one of the basic components of many Asian sweets. Traditional Asian cuisine is becoming more and more popular these days, thanks to the internet.
Asian desserts are usually overlooked by home cooks thanks to their supposedly “exotic” ingredients. In this article, we demystify cooking this tasty filling and teach you how to make it best.
We even tell you our time-tested recipe, simplified and streamlined for the home kitchen! If there was ever a time to start cooking Asian, it is now. Without any further ado, let’s jump in!
What is Red Bean Paste?
Anko is a paste made of boiled, mashed, and sweetened red adzuki beans. It can be smooth (when the beans’ husks are removed) or thicker and more heterogeneous.
It is a staple in many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes. However, there are many regional variations in this basic formula.
For example, Chinese versions traditionally utilize rock sugar (bing tang) and add lard (or other fats and oil) for extra richness. They are used in plenty of Chinese pastries e.g. mooncake being a particularly famous one.
Some Korean versions use black adzuki and remove the peel before mashing to make a smooth white paste.
In Japan, anko is used in innumerable desserts and even savoury dishes. Examples are mochi, dorayaki, taiyaki and zenzai. Japanese anko is usually the sweetest variety.
Our recipe below will result in a thick red bean paste without oil. It can even be made without a pressure cooker (which is the equipment traditionally used).
Red Bean Benefits
Apocryphally, adzuki became such a mainstay in Asian cuisine purely because of its health benefits.
In Chinese cuisine, they are used to restore health to the kidneys. In Japan, the beans went from being a luxury food restricted to the nobility to being enjoyed by everyone, thanks to an increase in sugar production.
It is evident that adzuki was a highly desired food. This was, as ancient wisdom often turns out to be, not without merit.
Red bean paste’s taste that is mild and earthy conceals its vast storage of healthful properties. These health powerhouses are loaded with nutrients, such as fibre, folate, vitamin B6, and riboflavin.
Minerals found in Adzuki include Magnesium, selenium, copper, zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and thiamin, among others. 100 grams of Adzuki contain 7.5 grams of protein and only 128 calories.
So if you want to make sweet treats that are healthy and less processed, try making anko and using it in your recipes.
Red bean paste tastes sweet due to the added sugar, unlike plain Adzuki beans. The latter tastes mild, nutty, and naturally sweet. Their texture is soft yet granular (not uniformly silky).
However, the taste is neutral enough to be incorporated into savoury dishes as well. It provides a lighter sweetness to the saltiness of the other ingredients. Anko, on the other hand, tastes sweet, earthy, and with a pleasantly soft texture.
The addition of oil can make it even slicker.
What is it used for?
Red bean paste recipes usually refer to the sweet filling being used for mooncakes, mochi, buns and more. However, if we look into more detail, the usage of the sweet filling depends, of course, on the cuisine which has prepared it.
In Japanese cuisine, anko is added to everything from pastries to buns to popsicles to mochi filling and even ice cream. It is, however, mostly used in sweets.
In Chinese cooking, on the other hand, anko is even used in savoury preparations. This includes savoury bread or less commonly, savoury soup (the latter is more commonly cooked as a sweet dish).
In Korean cooking, it can be added to porridge, rice, or steamed buns.
Thus, red bean paste is one of the most versatile preparations in any cook’s arsenal. Whether you are looking to cook traditional or try something new, anko can be incorporated to add a sweet, earthy taste.
The ingredients to anko are predictably simple. Adzuki beans are the most important ingredient.
Different types of sugars are also added to the recipe. Honey is used sometimes to add a floral note to the earthy adzuki. Japanese recipes use white sugar, while Chinese ones use rock sugar instead.
Brown sugar, while less common, provides a caramel flavour that is reminiscent of that of rock sugar (which is difficult to find). For this reason, we have included it in our red bean paste recipe.
If you cannot find adzuki at your local Asian market (where they can commonly be found), you can try using other beans instead. Some of the best ones to use are kidney beans, cannellini, or black beans.
However, take note that all of these will taste completely different from adzuki. As a result, filling made from these might not work in every recipe. Kidney beans are the best and closest substitute.
However, dried adzuki ships well and can thus be ordered online without much difficulty. Using substitutes is not recommended as it makes the cooking process of the red bean paste much more variable. For example, the time taken to cook the beans might change.
Additionally, each of the beans mentioned above has a different flavour profile and thus cannot be used in each dish. Some are better disposed for savoury applications instead, for example.
If you do not have red beans in your pantry, we have different sweet paste recipes for different beans that you can check out too! We have the green tea mung bean paste as well as the lotus seed paste, both of which are popular Asian sweet dessert fillings.
Many recipes for red bean paste found online utilize a pressure cooker. This has the advantage of reducing the cooking time drastically.
It is also easier to husk the adzuki if they are cooked in a pressure cooker. However, since not everyone has a pressure cooker, our recipe does not use one.
Other equipment often used to cook this sweet filling is a potato masher and a sieve. The latter is a basic cooking utensil that should be accessible to most people.
Potato mashers, on the other hand, are often more difficult to find and thus can be substituted with heavy metal or wooden spatula or spoon.
Red Bean to Sugar Ratio
The amount of sugar in your red bean paste depends on what it will be used for. Generally speaking, we recommend adding less sugar to start with. Remember, you can increase sugar content, but not take it away.
High sugar content anko is used as filling in desserts like buns, pastries, mooncakes, breads, or other sweets, traditional or otherwise. It is also used as a topping for shaved ice, ice cream, popsicles, or drinks.
On the other hand, low sugar content anko is eaten on its own.
In the end, it is the usage of the anko which decides how much sugar it should contain. Our recipe contains a low sugar content. Instructions and quantities for adding extra sugar are written below.
As mentioned previously, there are two broad categories of red bean paste.
Tsubu-an (Chunky Texture)
The most commonly homemade version (and the one which this recipe makes) is thick, chunky, and sticky. In Japanese, this is called Tsubu-an.
For Tsubu-an, the husks of the Adzuki are not removed before mashing. This produces a softer, slightly crunchier filling. It also has the added advantage of retaining most of the vital nutrients in the Adzuki.
Koshi-an (Smooth Texture)
The second variety of anko is smoother, silkier, and much more homogeneous in texture. In Japanese, this is called Koshi-an.
This type of red bean paste is commonly used in restaurants or bakeries and can be bought at Asian markets. It is made by removing the husk of the Adzuki. Along with removing nutrients, it also strips the filling of the natural sweetness of the Adzuki.
Thus, it requires a larger amount of sugar to taste the same. This type of anko is more difficult to make at home.
Our recipe results in the first type of anko: unapologetic, thick, smooth, and sweet.
How To Store
Red bean paste should be stored in airtight containers to prevent browning or oxidation. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a week.
For long-term storage, it can be frozen. Frozen solid, it should last about a month.
Red Bean Paste (Hong Dou Sha) | Anko Recipe
- 250 g dried adzuki beans
- 200 g white sugar
- 25 g brown sugar
- pinch of salt
- Rinse beans in water and soak them overnight. The next day, drain and discard the soaking liquid.
- Next, boil the beans in roughly 4 cups of water (or a large enough amount). Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover it with a lid. Intermittently check on the beans to make sure they are still submerged in water.
- After about an hour, test the tenderness of the bean by crushing it with your fingers. Make sure it is soft and easily crushed.
- Remove the lid, stir the beans, and add the sugars. Boil until thickened.
- Strain the mixture through a sieve and mash until the mixture is combined. Then, cool in the fridge until the mixture has solidified into a red bean paste.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
The recipe above is to make a chunky textured (Tsubu-an) paste. If you would like one with a smooth texture (Koshi-an), we recommend watching the video recipe below made by the Youtube channel ‘What Santa left behind サンタの忘れもの’.
We hope you enjoyed this in-depth look at the building block of many dishes, red bean paste! We hope we helped you on your journey to mastering and learning about Asian cuisine.
Keep cooking (and eating). Bon appetit!