Chinese legend has it that there was once a woman who, while mourning her deceased husband, cried tears of blood. Her cattle farmer husband had gone off to fight a war. Every day and night while he was away, the woman waited patiently for him and then took her waiting to a mountain top where she’d stare deep into the horizon for her beloved’s return. But surprise, surprise–he never returned. Her optimism regressed into soul-crushing sadness. And with no Netflix, burritos, or ice cream to ease the heartbreak, she just sat on the mountain and cried. The tears she continued to shed turned into blood and then mysteriously transformed into little tiny red beans, readying the earth with seeds to sprout the first ever red bean tree.
This myth and iterations of it have come to symbolize a kind of punishing but enduring love and unwavering devotion. Because of this, it’s become customary to eat red bean soup at Chinese weddings, as if auspicious foods could steer someone with a roving eye away from committing adultery. But I love red bean soup, so any excuse to eat it, I’ll take it.
Super sad love story aside, red bean or adzuki bean is actually chock full of heart-helping vitamins and minerals, improving cardiovascular health and aiding with stroke prevention. Plus it’s delicious. Especially in dessert. Not too long ago, I developed red bean dessert recipes for Refinery29 and had a chance to play with both canned sweetened anko or red bean paste and my homemade version. Po-Po always made hers from scratch because she thought the canned stuff was too sweet. I thought the same in using it for some of the desserts. I had to dilute the sweetness with water. Also, let’s be honest, homemade always wins.
After dried red beans are soaked overnight and then cooked a pot or rice cooker to soften, Po-Po would then sauté the mushy beans in a wok with some sugar to thicken and caramelize the paste. What resulted was always a delicious fiber-rich mush used for mochi, eight treasure rice, ice cream, and bao (recipe to come).
Sweetened Red Bean Paste
Makes about 1.5 cups
1 cup dried red beans or Adzuki (preferably organic)
3 cups water
Chinese yellow rock sugar or brown sugar
Rinse and soak red beans overnight if cooking over the stove. Then add soaked red bean to a medium heavy pot with water and cook over medium heat until tender, about an hour. Once water begins to water, turn down heat to low and cover with lid to simmer. If using a rice cooker, add rinsed red beans and water directly to cook.
Once beans are soft and tender, remove from heat and let cool. Drain any excess liquid. Heat oil in wok or pan. Add cooked beans and start sautéing for about 3 minutes. Add sugar and continue cooking. Add a little water to pan if the paste begins to dry out. Once sugar is completely mixed in, remove paste from heat to cool. The paste can be refrigerated up to one week.