Red Bean Repeat: A Love Affair with Anko
Perhaps you have heard of a cute little character called Anpanman? Maybe you’ve read Wendy Ng’s popular article about the Anpanman train in Shikoku?
Well then, you may safely assume Anpanman is pretty rad. He and his image are ubiquitous in Japan. Kids love him, parents are cool with him. And doesn’t he just look fun? What baby wouldn’t want to fly around on his back?
To refresh your memory, the ‘An’ in Anpanman refers to…
Anko. It is a sweet red bean paste, and Anpanman loves it.
Now I have a confession to make. I love anko too. My heart skips a beat when I get close to anko. Everyday I think about anko. You know that feeling when you love someone, and you just can’t imagine life without them? That’s how I feel about anko.
So with that in mind, let me tell you that anko is - in a word - awesome. For what its worth, I think it is one of the best treats you can have while in Japan.
When (not if) you get used to the taste, you will never bore of it. I can say this with complete confidence. You cannot go wrong trying all the different renditions of anko and there are certainly many. But I have to be honest. I initially had to overcome a heavy dislike of anko. It took time to cultivate my love of anko.
My first experience with anko was like this: As a homestay guest in Sapporo, I was served a big round mound of mashed and mushy purple beans, enclosed in chewy rice, and wrapped in a big, green viny leaf.
I had no idea then what it was, other than nasty. In hindsight I am aware that it was called kashiwamochi, and it is, in fact, delicious.
Not wanting to upset my hosts, I stuffed a wholesome gooey bite into my mouth, crunchy leaf and all. According to my Japanese father-in-law, eating the big leaf isn’t part of the process at all. If you, dear reader, already knew that, then right on! I was (more) ignorant at the time and couldn’t hide my discomposure. Anyway, so it goes.
I didn’t try anything anko related for many years after. It was kind of like a fling that goes wrong, but somehow, somewhere, at a later time you meet again, and everything feels just right the second time around. Now anko is my fail-safe dessert. I love anko. There are just so many great times involving anko.
I think perhaps one reason I enjoy anko so much is because the texture is satisfying and filling. I feel like I’m eating something heavy and substantial with the sweet beans. I like my desserts on the heavy side – cheesecake, cookies, brownies, etc. So anko does a good job of fulfilling my dessert requirement.
Whatever preconceptions you have concerning sweet red bean paste in all its various forms, put them aside. Just try anko when in Japan.
The following is a list of my top 3 favorite anko treats and where to get them when in Fukuoka.
*Disclaimer: It is really difficult to pick just 3. But at least these three are guaranteed winners.
My top 3 favorite anko treats are…(in no particular order)…
This one might appeal to most people because of its pancake or waffle-like texture and taste. The ‘tai’ in taiyaki is the name of a fish. Heated metal molds are used to contain the pancake batter. When closed together, and cooked for a few minutes, the resulting shape is that of a fish. Neatly tucked away inside the pancake-batter fish-shaped body is…That’s right! Anko! Yum yum!
In Tenjin, the bustling entertainment district that is known all over Kyushu, you can find ムツゴロウマンジュウ(Mutsugoroumanjyu). It is the self-proclaimed ‘King of Soul Food in Hakata’. It certainly is tasty. You can get various fillings, like custard, ham and egg, and of course, anko.
I can’t always steal away to Tenjin, so I opt for a local taiyaki experience. Taihouraku serves up some spot on taiyaki for 180 yen.
Located about 5 minutes on foot from Takamiya station on the Nishitetsu line, you can find this local gem on the corner of Takamiya and Oike streets. According to their website, for more than 45 years they have been in the taiyaki business. Furthermore, there isn’t anyone from Fukuoka who doesn’t know this popular and famous taiyaki.
Again, another take on pancakes and anko. Slapped in between two mini pancakes lies the sweet red bean paste. Many people are probably familiar with the character Doraemon. If you know Doraemon, then you know that little critter loves this dessert. What’s not to love?! Sweet beans and pancakes!
For not only dorayaki, but also a wide selection of traditional Japanese confections (和菓子-wagashi), try the renowned and refined Suzukake confectionery in Hakata.
Coincidentally, Suzukake is located across the street from……wait for it……The ANPANMAN MUSEUM! Didn’t I tell you? He is literally everywhere!
This dessert departs slightly from the first two. The reason being, there are no pancake-like parts involved. This is simply a bowl of soupy red beans with a few clumps of (glutinous pounded rice cake) thrown in for contrast and texture. People most often enjoy it during the colder winter months. It is served piping hot. But you can also enjoy the cooled version in summer.
You can try a satisfying bowl of zenzai in the Nakasukawabata shoten, the well-known shopping arcade in Hakata. With a view of the Nakasu River, Kawabata Zenzai Hiroba is the perfect place for your bowl of sweet red beans.
There you will find on display an example of the large and very heavy decorative float that is used during the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival. The atmosphere, and the taste are unmistakably Hakata-like.
Any way you try anko, it is bound to please. You may even learn to love anko as I have come to. With all the different ways anko is prepared, I never bore of it. Like a lover who loves me unconditionally, anko keeps me coming back for more every time.