In the Korean drama Sweet Buns, heartthrob actor Park Kwang Hyun gives a dessert bun to win a girl over and initially starts a catastrophe among the characters of the show. The bun, a ddeok, changed relationships and central to what made Park Kwang Hyun so sexy in the show. Wow, us Asians sure take our red beans seriously, right?!
This had my mind on the fence about how many items in Asia revolve around red beans and how much it spans across all Asian cultures.
The Flips have the halo halos, the Koreans have their patsirutteok and yummy injeolmis, my thai sista and brothas have their khao niaow ma muangs (say that three times fast) and my shoutout to the Indian kachori only scatches the surface of red bean desserts. Once all the Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese dessert items are involved, it's a wonder why red bean is constantly in excess of its demand in that part of the world.
In Asia, red bean is a big part of popular culture. In Japanese, we call it azuki. It's a flavor found in snacks like Pepsi, Kit Kat, chips, yogurt, mochi and ice cream. Whenever I'm in Japan, I can't take enough red bean Kit Kat with me because they're so elusive here in America including most Japanese stores! It is widely mentioned in television dramas and a soft prop for silly humor and romantic couple food. I've often had fantasies of Park Kwang Hyun offering me a Hello Kitty red bean popsicle!
The popularity of the red bean is also displayed in names of Asian businesses, songs, themes and baby names (in fact, my best friend from elementary school was a girl named Azuki!). Red beans are frequently used in wedding games, celebrations and just about anything that is related to happy times or the suggestion of happy times (hence its symbol romantically).
But wait up! Old people love red bean too.
Elderly Japanese men and women often cite the spiritual healing properties associated with azuki. Departed loved ones were offered azuki-related items as gifts to carry on into the afterlife. In return, these same items were also considered to ward off evil spirits!
In the realm of science, red bean also scores high points among health conscienceness. It's a natural ingredient to healthy desserts that contain a good source of potassium and other B vitamins. A daily dose of red bean helps lower cholestrol and provides low calories that fill but also help lose weight. A friend of mine from college once went on a red bean diet and she lost 20 pounds in a span of a month. Jenny Craig who?
Red bean also is a very attractive source for body builders looking to fill up on protein and minimize the fat. A body building friend of mine, Vinh, explains:
"Most people recommend soy as a natural, non-produce supplement of protein. But I've found that red beans are much more higher in quality and because they're combined with other foods high on grain. I can actually eat little meat and still get the protein I need from large quantities of red bean. As long as it's not something that's full of fat, red bean things really work"
Hear that guys? Go pump some iron and stock up on red bean dishes!
Cooking enthusiasts like myself will appreciate red bean as a versatile element that works in cold (Vietnamese chè ba màu), warm (Chinese mooncakes) and hot (Korean gochujang) settings. I find Azuki beans to be readily available in most Asian markets or places like Whole Foods and Central Market. If you're out of ideas, it's often a safe pick to just turn the beans into paste form and mix it in with sugar and some form of dough. For those wanting a quick and easy, red beans make great salad compliments along with assorted fruits and vegetables. I've managed many a working day's budget bringing azuki bean salads to my lunch hour.
These same markets also carry the red bean related snacks, most notably carried by companies like the Japanese Mikawaya or the Taiwanese Xiaomei.
Of course, none of this is worth mentioning if we don't acknowledge what red bean related items can be found in restaurants. Guess what? You're in luck! Almost all Asian restaurants carry with them their respective culture's red bean dish in their dessert sections! In Chinese restaurants, most dinners offer complimentary free tang shui, a flavory sweet soup composed of red beans. Japanese restaurants carry shiratama zenzai. Vietnamese restaurants offer che ba mau. Most Taiwanese and Cantonese bakeries carry items with red bean, while tapioca and ice cream places do the same as well.
With so many options and variety that red beans have in Asian culture, it's no wonder entire drama, songs and art are intertwined with daily Asian life! You could say that it's been popularity has never waned since it first was ingrained in Chinese and Japanese culture in 18,000 B.C. Not surpisingly, North America has starting to adapt azuki red beans into fusion dishes more and more into the present century. Red beans are readily found in muffins and cupcakes, salads and even pizza! With so much growing acclaim for them, it may be that the best import from East to West is not martial arts, horror movies, video games or silk, but the ever loving natural ingredient that is the azuki red bean!