Anko: savoring the sweet
December 4, 2017
What is anko?
“Anko” – or sometimes just plain “an” – is the doorway into the world of desserts in Japan. Until you’re familiar with anko, exploring the tantalizing sweets on offer will be setting out in a new city without a guide book. You’ll probably make some great discoveries along the way, but you’ll have no idea how to retrace your steps.
Anko is a sweet paste that can be made from beans, chestnuts, sesame, sweet potatoes, and sometimes fruit. Despite this variety, it’s most commonly used to mean “red bean paste” made from azuki beans. “How can beans be a dessert and where is the chocolate?!” you might cry. But don’t be hasty. Firstly, I’ll hazard that you’ve never had some kind of beans in a sweetened sauce – I’m British, and baked beans are basically part of my identity. Secondly, anko has such a deep and complex flavor that I’ll dare to suggest that it’s essentially the Japanese chocolate.
To make anko from azuki, the beans are carefully simmered, and then mixed with sugar to produce a paste. This can take one of two forms: “tsubu-an”, where the beans remain whole, and “koshi-an”, which is completely smooth and is made by removing the skins from the beans before mixing them with sugar.
I should inform you that the debate over which is better is as fierce as the contest between crunchy and smooth peanut butter. Both have their factions: for some, the smoothness of the consistency of koshi-an produces an irresistible melting sensation; for others, tsubu-an provides a variety of texture as the beans give way, dispersing notes of savory among the sweet. But some freethinking souls opt for the diplomatic “it depends on what you’re eating”.
This raises a key point: do not underestimate the sheer variety of sweets in which anko is found.
Perhaps one of the quintessential anko snacks is taiyaki. This is a light cake – shaped like a tai (sea bream) – that contains various fillings. Although many shops use custard, chocolate, and even cheese, azuki takes precedence.
I visited a traditional shop that only serves azuki tsubu-an (the whole beans version). Each day, an astounding 30 kilograms of beans are processed to produce 100 kilograms of anko. The beans are simmered for three hours in a special machine that prevents them from moving around the water, ensuring that they keep their shape that is essential for the tsubu-an texture. They are then mixed with sugar to make a thick paste. Batter is poured onto a fish-shaped mold, the paste added on top, then more batter, before the mold is clamped shut and heated briefly to seal the batter.
Shortly afterwards, one beautiful taiyaki is in your hands, piping hot. Bite into it cautiously, and feel the steam from the tsubu-an escape past your upper lip. The earthy yet sweet azuki gives a complexity that will draw you in.
The batter at this store is all about texture. Made from wheat flour, it’s crisp and papery, a casing that allows the tsubu-an to take center stage. However, there are now many stores that add eggs to produce a fluffier batter, and so taiyaki are sometimes described as “pancakes”.
All the anko sweets!
...Or maybe not all the sweets. It's impossible to introduce all the ways anko is used but here are some highlights.
Oshiruko is a sweet red bean soup, generally served hot. At the store I visited, it’s served with some salty pickles and a very savory ume-konbucha (plum seaweed tea) to cleanse the palate, reflecting the closer relationship between sweet and savory in Japanese cuisine. The soup was rich and comforting – although it was dessert, it felt more like a meal. Each bean in the tsubu-an had an individual journey, ensuring the soup had a long story to tell. I tried a mochi (rice cake) and chestnut version. The mochi had the perfect amount of resistance to the bite, making its presence felt as the tang of its charred edges cut through the sweetness of the soup. Equally, the chestnuts were crisp to the bite – their flavor delicate yet prominent.
Mochi – chewy rice cake – is commonly filled with anko of many kinds. I sampled chestnut surrounded by smooth koshi-an, shiro-an (white kidney bean) in a matcha casing, and an apricot-koshi-an combo in which the fruitiness and earthiness worked in perfect harmony.
The an can also come as a coating. This is often the case for zunda mochi – particularly popular in Miyagi prefecture in the northeast – and one of my all time favorites. Zunda-an is made from mashed young edamame (soybeans) and the taste walks a salty-sweet borderline so skillfully that it’s addictive.
This is essentially a solidified jelly, made from azuki or sometimes white kidney beans, agar and sugar. It comes in a block and makes a popular energy snack when hiking due to its portability, but it’s also sold as a delicacy in high-end sweet stores. Yokan range widely in sweetness. Being a fan of the more savory end of the spectrum, I worked through a seasonal version with chestnuts, which made me a new yokan fan... and regret sharing it with colleagues.
Anpan is said to have been created at the time of the Meiji Restoration by Yasubei Kimura, a samurai who was out of job due to the dissolution of the samurai class. Kimura founded a bakery in 1869 in which he attempted to make bread – a new product that had arrived from the West – more suited to Japanese tastes. He settled on a sweet bun that contained anko at its core.
Anpan is now popular nationwide, with April 4th designated as “Anpan Day” and many references to the bun across popular culture. The pioneer store is still doing business in Ginza. Its anpan has a unique flavor as the bread is made with naturally fermented sake yeast. I found this went particularly well with uguisu-an made from green peas. Another version is served with sweet potato tsubu-an-style, the little chunks of sweet potato giving a lightly powdery contrast to the bread. A popular combination is sakura-an – salted, pickled cherry blossoms with azuki koshi-an, but for me black sesame took things to another level. The powerful nutty taste is a tough rival.
An anko core surrounded by beans pickled in sugar, kanoko are fairly uncommon. The word literally means “fawn” as the beans are said to resemble the round markings on a baby deer’s back. I tracked down a store that serves six different kinds made from azuki beans, white kidney beans, kidney beans, chestnuts, tiger beans and green peas – most of which are grown on the northern island of Hokkaido. Absolutely stunning was a gyuhi (soft delicate mochi) core, encased in matcha shiro-an, enveloped in plump green peas.
Wander anywhere in Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south and you will find anko treats to try. Go forth and explore, forge your own dessert journey whether you join Team Koshi or Team Tsubu.
Text and photos: Phoebe Amoroso
2-11-3 Nihonbashiningyocho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0013
Mochi / Yokan:
Ginza Akebono Ginza Honten
5-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Tokyo Ginza Kimuraya Bakery
4-5-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Oshiruko / Kanoko:
5-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061