One of the most popular traditional Japanese desserts there is, oshiruko, it is a soup made of red beans and sugar, served as a hot treat or dessert. You have probably seen it being served in restaurants, at parties and during specific celebrations in Japan. Oshiruko is superbly enjoyable and can be easily prepared with only a few ingredients. Different styles of this sweet red bean soup are popular all over East Asia, but let us take a look at the Japanese version of it.
The Japanese variety of red bean soup, oshiruko, is made from boiling red beans and sugar in water, and is usually served with mochi (sticky rice cakes). The consistency is quite soupy, with beans dominating the taste of the dish. When boiled in water, the beans will expand and blend in with the water, but won’t become pasty as you might see it in other varieties of the dessert. Although a dessert, the health benefits and protein content of the red beans do make it a filling meal. Oshiruko is pretty easy to prepare at home: you only need water, sugar, red beans (azuki in Japanese) and a pinch of salt.
Classic Oshiruko. Photo by emi moriya on Flickr
A similar dessert that looks and tastes like oshiruko, is the zenzai dessert, that differs from oshiruko, by having a more solid consistency. Zenzai is made of a red bean paste (anko), while oshiruko is a more watery version with the beans cooked whole dominating the dish. Both very similar in taste and popularity, oshiruko and zenzai are sometimes not distinct from each other. The tradition around zenzai can be noticed through the amounts of zenzai cafes, especially in traditional Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Kamakura. Zenzai is often enjoyed with a bowl of matcha green tea.
ZENZAI. Photo by kimubert on Flickr
Japan’s Love for Sweetness
Sweet foods and desserts are of huge importance in Japanese culture, while also combining the importance of healthy and natural ingredients. The red azuki bean is an example of just that, and is a common ingredient in many Japanese desserts — with oshiruko being one of the most famous ones. Either boiled in water, or made as the anko paste – the combination of red beans and sugar has made it a stable in Japanese desserts. If you would like to make your own Japanese desserts at home, a different variety of azuki bean ingredients for oshiruko and zenzai are available in supermarkets all over Japan.
Where to Buy
Oshiruko is so popular that you can even find it in a canned version that is available from vending machines and convenience stores. If you would like to make your own you can either make it from scratch by cooking red beans with sugar, or buying pre-made soup that just needs heating. There are even some instant powders on the market, to recreate the dish with water, when you do not have time to cook or enjoy it at a cafe.
OSHIRUKO SERVED WITH MOCHI. Photo by Blue Lotus on Wikimedia Commons
When to Eat
There are no rules to when oshiruko can be enjoyed, although the dessert is pretty popular in colder seasons. It’s availability makes it popular as a light meal, a dessert or just as a snack. Many Japanese buffet restaurants will offer it as their dessert option, due to its popularity in Japanese culture. The easy preparation and popular taste has also made oshiruko an available dessert in shrine cafes, and is also popular to enjoy in New Year’s celebrations — on kagami biraki — when you break the New Year mochi and cook it in a traditional soup. Many Japanese families will use the dessert as their soup to celebrate the New Year.
If there is one traditional Japanese dessert you should enjoy while visiting Japan, be sure to try out oshiruko – a delicious and inexpensive Japanese experience.