Maybe you’ve seen them on an ingredient list somewhere (ahem), or maybe you’ve spotted them in the bulk bins at your food co-op, but either way you’re curious–what are adzuki beans? Furthermore, why should I cook with them? Adzuki beans don’t just have a cool name. They’ve been bred and grown in Japan for over 4,000 years. With that kind of history, let’s look first to the Japanese for some cues on how to use adzuki beans.
Because adzuki beans have a light, natural sweetness to them, they are frequently used in desserts in Japan and China, where they are boiled with sugar to create a paste that is often found inside steamed buns or pastries and sometimes in ice cream. But adzuki beans are still beans, and so their use isn’t restricted to dessert.
In Japan, sekihan is a dish made from steamed adzuki beans and sticky rice, which mirrors the many traditions around the world of eating rice with beans. This simple preparation is a boon for a plant-based diet, as the beans and rice form a complete protein, and on top of that, adzuki beans are especially rich in iron–one cup of cooked adzuki beans contains over 25% of your recommended dietary allowance.
Adzuki beans are also commonly sprouted. If you haven’t tried sprouting yet, you might want to give it a try. Not only is sprouting like having a mini garden in your kitchen, it also makes beans, grains, and seeds more nutritious. Beans are essentially seeds, and one way the plant protects and stores nutrients within the seed is through phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to many nutrients within the seed, including iron. This is smart for the plant, but not so great for humans who look to these seeds for nutrition. Phytic acid acts as an “anti-nutrient,” preventing easy digestion of some nutrients. Sprouting, however, causes phytic acid to release these nutrients for easier digestion, which means more of the good stuff for you.
Sprouting is truly easy and requires minimal equipment. Soak about ½ cup of beans in 3 cups of water in a quart jar overnight or around 12 hours. Drain and rinse the beans thoroughly, then place back in the jar. You can buy special screens for sprouting in jars or improvise a screen by using a regular jar ring to secure a piece of clean, thin kitchen towel or several layers of cheesecloth on top of the jar. Then place the jar on an angle with the lid facing down to allow the sprouts to drain. The easiest way to do this is to lean the jar at an angle inside a bowl. Rinse and drain the beans every day until they sprout, which takes about 3 to 4 days.
Once the beans have sprouted, they can be sprinkled on top of a salad for a little extra crunch or they can be cooked in stir-fries, soups, or stews for a nutritional bonus.
Even though adzuki beans may be unfamiliar to those of us who live in the West, the good news is that cooking them isn’t so different from cooking other beans. Almost all beans benefit from an 8 to 12 hour soak, and adzuki beans are no exception. Soaking not only shortens the cooking time for dried beans, but it also helps to hydrate them, meaning that soaking leads to creamier, better-textured beans once they’re cooked.
Place soaked beans in a pot and cover with plenty of water. Add a strip of kombu to the pot if you have it–kombu reduces the gas-causing properties of beans. Gently simmer the beans until they are very tender. This can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half, so be patient, and avoid boiling the beans. When they are almost tender, add salt to taste and finish cooking. At this point you can stash the beans in your fridge to use throughout the week in soups, salads, or dragon bowls. Use adzuki beans anywhere you would normally use beans. You can even turn them into a hummus-like bean spread!
Better yet, celebrate your newfound love of adzuki beans on National Chili Day with a hearty, plant-based adzuki bean chili. Off-the-cuff chili is easy to make. Start by sautéing a generous amount of chopped onion and garlic in a neutral-tasting oil such as avocado oil. You can also add bell pepper or jalapeños. Then add in a heap of spices. The easiest way to do this is purchasing pre-made chili powder, but you can also use a blend of cumin, coriander, oregano, and ground chiles. Throw in a little cayenne or a chipotle in adobo sauce for some heat. Add adzuki beans, a can of whole tomatoes, and enough vegetable stock to loosen things up. Simmer for a while, then taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with your favorite hot sauce, cilantro, and chopped green onion.
While adzuki beans don’t have quite the same familiarity of the chickpea or the black bean, they’re every bit as deserving of a spot in your pantry. They make a versatile and delicious addition to your legume rotation, especially if you’re trying to get more iron in your diet. So you can finally approach that bulk bin without fear and embrace the humble adzuki. 4,000 years of Japanese cooks can’t be wrong!
Megan’s abiding passion is culinary arts. Her career in food began on a small farm, transitioned to extensive food and cooking research, and finally led her to working for the iconic cookbook, the Joy of Cooking and with natural food brands across the country in her role at HEART: Creative Culinary Agency.