Many people are often surprised to hear that beans can be enjoyed as dessert. But ‘anko’, a paste made from red beans called ‘azuki’, is a staple in traditional Japanese confectionery, and has been enjoyed by Japanese people for centuries. Anko, or sweet red bean paste, is the equivalent of chocolate in the western world.
The origin of red bean paste dates back to the Heian period when Chinese travelers visited Japan with recipes for steamed buns. Japan adopted the recipe and incorporated meat and vegetables; however, Buddhist priests were unable to eat the meat-filled buns, so they opted for a substitute of boiled azuki beans. The beans only began to be sweetened during the Muromachi period when Dutch traders started importing sugar to Japan.
Anpan is a sweet roll that was first made in 1874 by a samurai named Mr. Kimura. He lost his job due to the dissolution of the samurai as a social class back in Meiji period. During that time, Japan was becoming more westernized, and bakeries started to appear. His new job was as a baker.
Soon after Mr. Kimura founded the well-known bakery called ‘Kimuraya’, which still exists today. Kimura created a bread that was more suited to Japanese tastes. He replaced the traditional Japanese red bean mochi (a Japanese rice cake made from short-grain glutinous rice) with western bread instead of mochi and it is here where anpan, the traditional soft Japanese bread roll filled with red bean paste, was first invented.
Anpan, derived from anko red bean paste, and pan, taken from the French word for bread (pain), is undoubtedly one of Kimuraya’s most famous products, and one of the most popular types of bread in Japan. Like true artisans, their original recipe has not changed since their first conception. Kimuraya have also not patented their recipe, allowing other bakers to make the same product as they please.
You can find anpan in bakeries and convenience stores all throughout Japan. Anpan is almost always filled with azuki bean paste in varying textures. Some are smooth, and others are chunky. Zunda beans (green beans) and white soybeans are common fillings. Other non-azuki bean paste flavors are pumpkin, chocolate, and cream, to name a few.
Red Bean paste comes in many shapes and forms, but one thing is constant: the ingredient is a special and meaningful component of different East Asian cultures. With its creamy texture, red bean paste is suitable for a multitude of desserts. Its flavor is sweet and savory at the same time, with notes of chocolate and walnuts.
Just for fun, I thought I would try making some anpan buns to see if we would like them. Of course, what’s not to like …. there sweet and soft!!
Sweet Red Bean Buns
In a small bowl, dissolve yeast & 1 tsp sugar in lukewarm milk. Let stand for 5 minutes to allow yeast to activate. In a large bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup sugar, melted butter, sour cream & egg. Add yeast mixture, stirring to combine.
In another bowl, combine flour & salt. Add flour mixture, 1 cup at a time, combining with wet mixture. Once all flour has been added, knead dough for about 2 minutes until smooth & elastic consistency, Place dough in a greased bowl & cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about an hour.
Lightly butter 2 muffin pans using only 20 cups total.
Punch the risen dough down & transfer to a lightly buttered work surface. Divide the dough into 20 equal portions with about 50 grams each. Take one portion of the dough, shape it round, flatten it with a rolling pin, put a ball of red bean paste and seal it properly. Shape the ball, use a rolling pin to flatten (not too forceful or it will break the dough) it into a rectangular shape, use a sharp knife to cut 4 lines in the middle of the dough about ½-inches apart.
Roll up, starting at the longest side of dough, twist & attach ends together. Place each bun in a muffin cup.
Brush egg wash over tops of buns & sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cover buns with a tea towel & allow to rise for about 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
Bake for 20 minutes or until golden in color. Remove from oven. Take buns out of pans & cool on wire racks.
- If you prefer your bun dough a bit sweeter use 1/4 cup as opposed to 2 Tbsp as I did.