Recently several formal banquets that I have attended — especially the Japanese-style ones — have finished with a small dish of sweet red bean soup. While it is a fitting end for an elegant Asian dinner party, red bean soup is incredibly cheap and very easy to make. Depending on where you source the ingredients, I calculate that you could make up to six serves of red bean soup for around AUD$1 (NT$30). The rising cost of sugar might make it more expensive in the future, but even so it will still be one of the cheapest deserts you will ever make.
Red bean soup (红豆汤 — hong dou tang) is popular in China and Japan, but people in Taiwan are especially crazy about it, especially in the colder months. The Chinese believe that red coloured foods assist with blood circulation; red beans (also known as adzuki beans) are especially prized for their health-giving properties. Taiwanese women often like to eat red bean soup when they have their periods to help strengthen their bodies and rejuvenate blood supply. Adzuki beans are high in iron, so there is logic behind this practice. You can buy adzuki beans easily in Asian grocery supermarkets or health food stores. The same method also works for red kidney beans.
Make ahead and store in the fridge for up to a week. Serve in oriental pottery bowls to add a little zen luxury to this simple but satisfying sweet treat.
3/4 cup of red beans (adzuki beans)
Pinch of bicarbonate of soda (optional)
1/2 cup of sugar (or to taste)
Pinch of salt (optional)
1.25l of water
- Put the red beans into a large bowl. Remove any deformed or odd-looking beans. Cover with water and soak overnight. You can add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to help soften the beans, but this is not essential.
- After soaking the red beans will have swollen to almost double their size and look like small peanuts. Drain off the water.
- Put the beans into a slow cooker and cover with the water. Cook on ‘auto’ for around four to five hours. (If you are using a normal saucepan, add additional water and cook for at least thirty minutes.) The red beans should be squishy but still retain most of their shape. And best of all, the liquid ‘soup’ should be a lovely red colour.
- Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Red bean soup is usually served quite sweet; adjust the amount of sugar to taste.
- Add a generous tablespoon of barley to add flavour and nutrition. In my picture (above at step 2), I have added a type of ‘popped’ barley commonly used in Taiwanese sweet and savoury soups. Pearl barley would work just as well. You do not need to soak the barley, but I often add it to the soaking water an hour or two before cooking (if time permits).
- Add a generous tablespoon of sticky black rice. This will transform the red bean soup into a south-Asian style rice dessert and help thicken the texture of the soup.
- Prior to serving, add around 1 tablespoon of tang yuan per person. Tang yuan are glutinous rice flour dumplings, often eaten during the Lantern Festival that marks the culmination of Chinese New Year festivities. Tang yuan are usually filled with black sesame or peanut paste, but you can also buy plain, marble sized pink and white tang yuan that transform red bean soup into a real treat.
- For an elegant summer dish, add two teaspoons of agar agar powder to warm red bean soup. Still to combine, and then pour into a mould. Serve sliced with a drizzle of thickened cream.