You may have been to Asian grocery stores and seen tiny red beans resting among a kaleidoscope of other colored beans and wondered how to cook them. Or you may have seen or tried them as a sweet paste in an Asian dessert such as a steamed buns, red bean mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cakes), or moon cake.
There is much more you can do with these humble red beans—called adzuki in Japanese—than just fill desserts, and this week’s recipe pairs them with kabocha squash in a savory macrobiotic dish. This is my all-time favorite recipe for red beans—it is highly nutritious and warming for cold wintry days.
Both adzuki and kabocha are readily available in Asian groceries stores, and these days you can find kabocha in most supermarkets at reasonable prices, compared to what I had to pay a decade ago, when they cost around $3 per pound in Japanese supermarkets in Singapore.
Kabocha squash has a hard, dark forest-green skin with lighter green striations and golden-orange flesh inside. They range in size from around 7 inches to over 9 inches. For storage purposes, I usually prefer the smaller ones.
Because of their hard skin, you don’t have to refrigerate whole kabocha. Simply place them in a cool, dark, ventilated place and store them for up to a month.
For this dish, kabocha is preferred because of its soft, creamy texture and sweetness, although occasionally you might get one that is not sweet, probably because it was harvested prematurely.
A staple for the macrobiotic diet, this adzuki-kabocha dish can be eaten in reasonable amounts with brown rice almost everyday. It is a healing, tonifying, and harmonizing dish. Adzuki beans nourish the kidneys, while the kabocha tonifies the stomach, spleen, and pancreas, helping with sugar metabolism.
Additionally, the kombu seaweed in the dish provides minerals and helps alkalize the blood. This dish helps to improve overall strength and vitality and hence is highly recommended for cold winter days and when your body needs a little extra energy to keep you going.
• 1/2 cup small, red adzuki beans
• A strip of kombu seaweed 1–2 inches long
• Kabocha squash
• Sea salt or shoyu to taste
• Chopped scallions
1. Wash and soak the red beans together with the kombu seaweed for a few hours or overnight.
2. Cook the beans with the kombu on high flame with the soaking water. Add more water if necessary and bring to a boil.
3. Keep the pot uncovered, reduce flame to low, and cook the beans for 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Then cover the pot partially and continue to simmer the beans for an hour or more, or until the beans are soft to bite into but still remain intact.
5. Add more water during the cooking to ensure the beans do not dry out.
6. While the beans are cooking, wash and scrub the squash with a vegetable brush. Do not peel off the skin, as the green skin and the golden-orange flesh complement the red color of the adzuki beans, making the dish look more interesting.
7. Chop the squash into big chunks of about 1.5 inches by 1.5 inches.
8. Once the beans are 80 percent cooked, place the chopped squash on top of the beans.
9. Cover the pot and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes on low to medium flame until the squash is almost done. You can test with a bamboo skewer or a fork to check if the squash is soft.
10. Add a few pinches of salt. For variation, you can use shoyu or miso paste instead.
11. Then cover and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes—making sure that the dish does not have too much water and yet is not completely dried out.
12. Turn off the burner and uncover the pot to prevent the squash from getting overcooked.
13. Garnish with chopped scallions and serve the dish in the cooking pot. If you like the flavor, you can garnish with cilantro.
There are ways to expedite cooking these tough little red beans. The conventional way is to soak the beans first for several hours before cooking.
The second way is to pressure cook the beans with the kombu. Then transfer the beans to another pot to cook with the kabocha. I usually use a 1.5-quart white Corningware pot.
The third way, called the “shocking” method, is one I often use to expedite cooking the beans when I do not have time (or simply forget) to soak the beans and do not want to pressure cook them.
Put enough cold water in the pot to cover the beans. Bring to a boil on high heat. Add a bit of cold water and bring to a boil again. Repeat this procedure of adding cold water and boiling the beans as often as necessary, until the beans are cooked.
Remember, do not stir the food while cooking and do serve this dish in the cooking pot. According to macrobiotic philosophy, this helps the food maintain a calmer energy, which helps enhance balance and harmony in the body.
Like most other dishes in this health and wellness series, this dish is versatile and works reasonably well with different variations. If you are unable to find kabocha, you can substitute butternut squash. However, I prefer the kabocha because it tastes sweeter and holds together better when cooked.
It is wonderful to be adventurous and experiment with different tastes and vegetables. So be creative in your kitchen. Consider replacing kabocha with different types of winter squash, onions, and root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and parsnips.
You can use lentils or chickpeas instead of adzuki beans. Different beans and vegetables have different energies and healing properties. Some vegetables and beans are relatively more yang or more yin than others. For instance, adzuki beans are more yang than lentils and chickpeas.
You may recall from a recent article on the yin and yang of foods, that yin foods have a calming and cooling effect, while yang foods have a warming, energizing, and revitalizing effect on the body.
Since adzuki beans are more yang and warming than lentils or chickpeas, they are a good choice to eat during the winter months and when our body needs strengthening.
The benefits of adzuki beans are many. They are low-fat but high-protein and have lots of fiber. They contain iron and trace minerals such as calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc. They also have vitamin A, folic acid, and the B vitamins: B1, B2, B3, and B6.
Because of their high-fiber content, adzuki beans help improve bowel movement and regulate cholesterol levels. According to traditional oriental medicine, adzuki beans nourish the kidneys and fortify the bladder and kidney meridians. Therefore, it is especially beneficial to eat the adzuki-kabocha dish on winter days when polar vortexes bring freezing cold temperatures.
Dr. Margaret Trey has a doctorate in counseling from the University of South Australia. She was trained in oriental medicine, shiatsu, and macrobiotics, and was the director of Spirit Shiatsu in Australia for over 10 years. Now based in New York, she writes and continues her research on the effects of meditation on health and wellness.