Japan's Beloved Bean: What Are Japanese Red Beans?

By Annika Hotta
Updated: May 21, 2024

Calling all travelers with a sweet tooth! If you love sweets and Japanese foods, you need to know about Japanese red beans. That’s why we’re here, so we can tell you what red beans taste like, the different types of red bean paste, and what dishes you should eat to get your fill of these lovely legumes. 

Without any further ado, let’s get into what Japanese red beans are and why you should try out the number of red bean desserts Japan has to offer! 

What are Japanese red beans?

A bowl of Japanese red beans on a white serving tray, next to a wooden spoon.

Unlike red beans in the West, Japanese red beans are sweetened and typically used in desserts rather than in savory foods. Left whole in dishes like the New Year’s dessert soup, zenzai, or mashed into a smooth filling for taiyaki, Japanese red beans are a staple ingredient in Japanese sweets. 

What is red bean paste?

Red bean paste is adzuki beans (usually the black variety) boiled with sugar and crushed into a paste. The result is dark red with either a smooth or chunky texture. 

What does red bean taste like? 

A bowl of Japanese red beans, piled high.

Because we typically think of hearty stews or tacos when we think of red beans, Non-Asian people might be surprised to hear that red bean paste is not savory. 

Comprised of adzuki beans boiled with sugar, the red beans have a sweet, nutty flavor profile that goes well with other Japanese ingredients, such as matcha and mochi

3 types of red bean paste

A bowl of Japanese red bean paste above a bigger bowl of uncooked red beans.

Although the term “anko” refers to all types of bean pastes (including white bean paste and chestnut paste — which we highly recommend), we’ll only cover the different types of red bean pastes. 

There are three different types, all of which refer to the texture: 

Koshi-an: the smoothest red bean paste. The creamy texture is recommended for kids and those who are new to red bean paste. 

Tsubushi-an: the middle ground. The paste is mostly smooth with some crushed red bean bits mixed in to break up the texture. 

Tsubu-an: for the chunky lovers. You know you’ve become a red bean aficionado when you start preferring tsubu-an! 

8 ways to eat red beans

  1. Red bean bun
  2. Red bean soup
  3. Red bean ice cream
  4. Red bean mochi
  5. Red bean pancake
  6. Red bean taiyaki
  7. Red bean rice
  8. Red bean toast

1. Red bean bun

A Japanese red bean bun (anpan) on a bamboo serving tray, One is cut in half to reveal the red bean paste inside.

The dessert so beloved by young and old, there’s a superhero named after it. Red bean buns, or anpan (あんパン), are pretzel dough-like buns wrapped around a filling of sweet red bean paste and topped with toasted black sesame seeds. 

Want to take the tradition a step further? Try out red bean buns at the place where they were invented in 1869: Ginza Kimuraya in Tokyo!

2. Red bean soup

A bowl of Japanese red bean soup, with shiny red beans, chewy mochi, and a wooden spoon.

Known as zenzai (ぜんざい) in Japanese, this dessert soup includes toasted mochi and is typically consumed during the New Year holiday. Try out this simple red bean soup recipe yourself, which you can make in a pressure cooker to save on time! 

3. Red bean ice cream

A red bean ice cream on a serving dish. Beneath the ice cream you can see the darker red beans within.

It’s no surprise that Japanese people like to get their red bean fix during the summer too. When you’re craving something sweet and cool, pick up any number of icy red bean paste treats. 

Popular products include Imuraya’s Azuki Bar (あずきバー), Marunaga’s Ice Manju (あいすまんじゅう), and Lotte’s Yukimi Daifuku with red beans and butter (雪見だいふく小倉あんバター).

4. Red bean mochi

Red bean mochi, featuring white rice cake wrapped around a strawberry with a red bean paste filling.

For a sugar explosion, trying red bean mochi is a must. You’ll most commonly see red bean mochi with a strawberry filling, though you can also find plain red bean mochi, too. Look out for these at the supermarket, train stations, and food stalls near tourist spots. 

5. Red bean pancake

A hand holding a fresh red bean pancake within a napkin. Red beans ooze out of the sponge.

Dorayaki, also referred to as “red bean pancakes” in English, are sure to be a hit with any crowd. The pancakes are typically sweetened with honey to accentuate the sweetness of the red bean paste in the middle. 

If you’re traveling with kids (or just want to make the experience more fun for yourself), we recommend getting dorayaki near a castle, where they typically emblazon a picture of the castle or a mascot on the top! 

6. Red bean taiyaki

A taiyaki desserts being split open, revealing the red bean paste filling inside.

Taiyaki is a classic Japanese dessert, and for good reason. The waffle-like texture of the fish-shaped pancake goes so well with many fillings, including red bean paste. You can find red bean taiyaki at food stands near shrines, mountains, in malls, and occasionally at train stations, too. 

Be sure to wait a few minutes before eating though, because the red bean paste may be hot! 

7. Red bean rice

A steaming bowl of red bean rice, featuring adzuki on top of rice.

For a tasty side dish, red beans are added to glutinous rice and topped with black sesame seeds and salt. The good news is you can make this simple dish (known as sekihan or osekihan in Japanese) right in your rice cooker.

Because it’s said to bring good luck and prosperity, red bean rice is often eaten around the New Year, but we won’t tell if you eat it at any time throughout the year! 

8. Red bean toast 

A Nagoya specialty of toast with red beans and butter melting on top.

If you ever find yourself in Nagoya, the heart of red bean paste cuisine, red bean toast (おぐらトースト) is a must-try. Slathered in butter and red bean paste, this thick cut of toast is the perfect breakfast or morning snack. If you don’t plan to be in Nagoya anytime soon, though, Komeda serves this delicious morning special nationwide! 

We hope this breakdown of Japanese red beans gives you some ideas on how to consume the beloved dessert ingredient of Japan. 

Looking for more ways to satisfy your sweet tooth? Head over to these blogs for a deep dive into mochi, a list of the best mochi shops in Tokyo, and a guide to the top Tokyo wagashi (Japanese sweets) shops!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
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