"azuki togō ka, hito totte kuō ka? shoki shoki."*
* "Will I grind my adzuki beans, or will I get a person to eat? shoki shoki."
This little ditty is sung by Azukiarai, a macabre river-dwelling creature of Japanese legend, who, when he isn’t rinsing his adzuki beans in running water, is grinding them to a powder in a skull. A human one presumably, given those lyrics. A little odd, yes, in an Iron Chef, inscrutable kind of way. Considering the reputed healing powers of the adzuki I’m not surprised this fellow is obsessed with them, though I cannot condone, nor fathom, his fondness for human flesh. Besides, there’s enough protein in those little red beans to keep one happy, healthy and nourished without resorting to...well, whatever it is that he does.
Adzuki beans are easy on the digestion and require no (or precious little) soaking. Their inherent sweetness, coupled with a tendency to cook down to a creamy, red-flecked mass makes cooking desserts with them a natural to the Oriental palate. There you’ll find sweetened red bean pastes, cakes and a creamy, dairy-free sorbet quite unlike any other. An elusive flavour it has, difficult to put an exacting finger on. My step-sons loved it right up until the moment they learned it consisted of only red beans, vanilla and sugar. Both were caught with spoons in the pail later on – its light but mealy texture had them hooked, but they needed to go away and think about it for a little while.
Tinned legumes are a necessity of modern life – you can squander an entire afternoon waiting for chickpeas to reach that butter-soft stage (not to mention the twenty four soak required prior to their immersion) - but there are some legumes that are light years ahead in both texture and flavour when cooked from scratch. Tinned adzuki’s tend toward mush which is fine, desirable even, for sweet things but less pleasant in a savoury dish like this. They’ll take an hour, sometimes up to two, to reach tender creamy perfection. If you double the quantity, you’ll find they freeze well (this is true of all home-cooked beans) and you get the added bonus of a mineral-rich broth reputed to cleanse the kidneys. Two meals and a detox. Not bad, eh?
Sit these croquettes on a bed of quickly-wokked carrot, shredded wombok (Napa cabbage) and ginger and this meal is will evoke the exotic flavours of the Orient. It combines a bit of Japanese flavouring, a pungent Korean sauce and a Chinese-ish stir-fry. Oh for such harmony beyond the kitchen walls. Perhaps I could coax even that nasty old Azukiarai into trying this, and maybe, just maybe, he’d abandon his cannibalistic ways.
Adzuki bean croquettes – for 4
Dip, crunch, lick fingers. Repeat. It’s a ritual that appeals enormously. And if the sauce into which you are dipping just happens to be a complex, salty brew, all the better. Get the sauce made while the beans are simmering. The beans themselves are great over rice or even a steaming bowl of quinoa.
For the beans:
1 cup of adzuki beans
1 ¼ litres (5 cups) of water
1 x 5cm (2 inch) piece of kombu
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 2 cloves
A thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cloves of garlic, whole
2 tablespoons of mirin (or white wine/sherry)
1 tablespoon of oil
2 bay leaves
Sea salt or tamari
Pick over and rinse the beans. Place all of the ingredients except for the salt/tamari in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting, cover with a lid and simmer for 1-2 hours, or until the beans are completely tender.
Remove the kombu, onion, bay leaf, ginger and garlic. Taste, seasoning with salt and/or tamari. Simmer gently for a further 2-3 minutes.
Drain, holding back just a little of the cooking liquid.
To make the croquettes:
2 cups of cooked, drained adzuki beans (see above)
4 spring onions (scallions), finely chopped (greens, too)
1 generous teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns
Good pinch of sea salt
½ cup of breadcrumbs
½ cup of toasted sesame seeds
Oil, for greasing
Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F).
Puree the beans, either in a food processor, blender or a food mill (I quite like the texture a food mill gives and you get a bit of an upper body work-out in the process). Don’t be tempted to blitz to a super smooth puree – leave it just a little bit chunky. If the mixture looks a little dry, add a spoonful or two of the reserved cooking liquid.
Tip the beans into a bowl and mix through the spring onions. Crush the Sichuan peppercorns with the salt in a mortar and pestle then stir into the bean mixture. Add the breadcrumbs bit by bit until the dough is stiff enough to shape easily – you may not need them all.
Roll the mixture into small, slightly flattened croquettes – 5-7 cms (about 2-3 inches) is just fine. Make them smaller if you like, finger food-style. Tip the toasted sesame seeds out onto a plate and roll the croquettes around to coat.
Lightly grease a baking sheet and carefully place the croquettes on top. Brush the tops with a little extra oil and bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes. They should be golden and crisp. Alternatively you can shallow fry them, but I find that baking them makes for a much lighter and, it must be said, less messy meal.
Serve hot, with the following sauce.
Sesame dipping sauce:
This is pungent stuff and much as I love raw garlic, I’ve toned it down just a fraction from Mark Bittman’s original recipe. It’s very salty, very umami and very, very addictive. Consider yourself warned. Serve it in small dishes by the side of each plate. Leftovers (which there will be) make a great marinade.
¼ cup of tamari, shoyu or soy sauce
¼ cup of warm water
2 tablespoons of rice vinegar
1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon of pale sesame oil
2 tablespoons of sesame seeds, toasted until golden in a dry pan
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon of finely grated ginger
Pinch of chilli powder
Mix everything together until the sugar dissolves. Will keep, refrigerated, for a few days.