Azuki (or Adzuki) beans have become a relatively familiar item in Australia although they’re still mainly only sold in health food stores and eaten by those au fait with legumes. In fact, I’m not really sure what non-Asian people would do with azuki other than scatter them in salads or bean soup. I shudder to think of azuki patties being sold at my favourite wholefoods store (Manna Wholefoods). I guess this is mainly because I have been brought up thinking of azuki as a sweet ingredient.
Azuki itself is not sweet by any means. The bean is pleasantly flavoured and has a natural sweetness about it, not unlike white beans. In Japan it is cooked with sugar and the resultant sweet paste (anko) is used in many other recipes. It is also the basis of one of my favourite Japanese sweets, youkan or bean jelly. A small slice of youkan with a serve of green tea never fails to restore my own private Zen.
Youkan is made by processing the sweetened azuki with agar (a plant-based gelatin substitute) and allowing it to set, usually in enlogated blocks or bars. Some youkan are soft set and therefore remains more like a paste (mizu youkan), whereas others are set much harder and require a knife to cut the block into slices for serving. Youkan can be smooth in texture or made with tsubu an, where the azuki is not processed through a sieve after cooking and therefore retains its bean-ness (? lol).
Not all youkan is azuki based. White kidney beans are also cooked in a similar way to make shiro an. Shiro an has a much less distinct flavour so it can be mixed with green tea to make matcha youkan or persimmon as per the lovely photo to the left. In spite of my near obsessive interest in anything green tea flavoured, I must say that my favourite type is chestnut (kuri) youkan. The smooth jelly is prepared with chunks of chestnuts so you get two different textures and taste. I’m also quite partial to black sugar and black sesame youkan.
I was lucky to have visited a youkan maker during a high-school exchange visit to Japan. Although I think I disappointed my host-family for already knowing what youkan was, little did they know how much I enjoyed watching the process and actually sampling some fresh from the bamboo block moulds. Little did they also know that I was getting a good lesson in regional differences in Japanese cuisine. This youkan maker specialised in the softer jellies known to western Japan which was otherwise completely foreign to me.
Today I rely on my Japanese or Asian grocer for my supply of youkan. The generic type they get in stock isn’t too bad but certainly a far cry from the artisinal creations that I was very fortunate to sample every so often while working for the Japanese Consulate (visitors to the office often brought gifts, bless ’em). Good quality youkan is a most appreciated gift indeed in Japan.
So would the average Aussie enjoy youkan? I’m not so sure. I certainly wouldn’t recommend eating it on its own. A good cup of Japanese tea is the best foil for what is otherwise an extremely sweet dessert and as with anything Japanese, less is more. A small slice is all that is usually offered in a serving and to eat more will really require your poor pancreas to work overtime!