Two members of Japan’s pulse trade speak with IFT about their country’s confectionary use of dry beans.

By Dario Bard

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In Japan, as in many Asian countries, beans are primarily consumed in sweet foods. Adzuki and baby lima beans are the most commonly used. The beans are made into jelly or paste and then used as a pastry filling in such popular foods as anpan (buns filled with bean paste) daifuku (a rice cake filled with bean paste), manjū (a pastry filled with bean paste), monaka (wafers with bean jam spread), and sakuramochi (bean paste wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf), to name just a few. There is even ice cream made from adzuki beans.

To learn more about Japan’s confectionary use of beans, IFT spoke with Kunichiro Amakasu of Dah Chong Hong (Japan) Ltd. and Naoki Hashimoto of Aiwa Co., Ltd. Dah Chong Hong (Japan) is wholly owned by Dah Chong Hong Holdings, a business conglomerate based in Hong Kong, China, in which CITIC holds a 60% interest. Amakasu has been involved in Dah Chong Hong’s pulse business for 22 years and was recently invited to join the CICILS/GPC board. Naoki Hashimoto is the President of Nagoya-based Aiwa Co., Ltd., a company that purchases most of its adzuki beans from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Both Hashimoto and Amakasu are members of the Japan Pea and Bean Importers Association.

Kunichiro Amakasu of Dah Chong Hong (Japan) Ltd.
Naoki Hashimoto of Aiwa Co., Ltd. (Japan)

IFT: I understand that in Japan the demand for beans comes primarily from the confection industry. Could you tell me more about that?

Amakasu: Right. In Japan, when you say beans, most people think of soybeans, a staple food in our country. We use soybeans in many of our traditional foods, such as tofu, natto and miso.

But when it comes to pulses, we use them mainly for sweets. I would say 80% of pulse use in Japan is confectionary. We make anko, a sweet paste, out of a variety of beans, but the most popular is the adzuki bean, which we use to make a sweet-tasting red paste.

Hashimoto: We also make paste out of white beans. For instance, out of baby lima beans from California.

IFT: What are the final food products that these pastes are used in?

Amakasu: Bean paste is used mostly in a traditional Japanese cake, and the second biggest use is in the bakery industry. We have dough filled with either red or white paste.

Hashimoto: Another traditional food that uses red bean paste is Ogura toast, which is from the Nagoya area. It is a very special kind of toasted bread topped with a sort of red bean jam, also made from adzuki beans.

I would like to add that most people in Japan do not realize that the use of sweet bean paste is unique to this part of the world.

IFT: How are these foods consumed? As desserts? As snacks?

Amakasu: Sometimes they are eaten after a meal, but they are also eaten between meals, sometimes with tea. They make for a very healthy dessert or snack. Confection is the main use, but we consume sekihan, or red bean rice, too. It is a dish that is mainly served at celebrations.

Photo: kintoki sekihan, or red bean rice
Photo: daifuku desserts with strawberry center

Hashimoto: The belief is that the devil hates red, so that is why it is fitting for special occasions. Generally, adzuki beans are used in the preparation, but in many regions, kintoki beans are used. Kintoki beans are a little bit bigger. When red bean rice is made with adzuki beans, it is salty, but when it is made with kintoki beans, it is sweet. Other regions use other pulses to make sekihan.

IFT: Where do the beans come from? Does Japan produce them or are they imported?

Amakasu: Both. In Japan, the main production area is in the northern island of Hokkaido. That area produces about 60,000 MT of adzuki beans per year. Total annual domestic consumption is about 84,000 MT. So we imported around 24,000 MT of adzuki beans last year, the vast majority from China, with Canada a distant second.

In terms of white beans, last year we imported some 8,000 MT of lima beans from Myanmar, and nearly 5,000 MT of baby lima beans from California.

Hashimoto: In Aiwa’s case, we buy most of our adzuki beans from the Hokuren Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives in the City of Sapporo in Hokkaido. We also import, but only very small amounts, due to government quotas. Sometimes we buy imported beans from Dah Chong.

Amakasu: Right, we import, too. But now we are looking to buy more Hokkaido beans. Hokkaido not only produces adzuki beans, but also unique bean classes that are only grown there, such as tiger beans. At the moment, Hokkaido’s tiger bean production is very small. As a result, supplies are not steady and the beans are expensive; consequently, food manufacturers do not use them. However, at Dah Chong, we feel there is potential to expand the tiger bean market throughout Japan. The taste is exceptionally good.

IFT: Do you know if these confectionary products are consumed abroad? Perhaps by Japanese communities in other countries?

Amakasu: Yes, in the U.S. and Canada, Japanese ice cream on a stick, made from adzuki beans, is becoming very popular. It is not only consumed within the Japanese communities there, but also by the general public. The Häagen-Dazs brand, in fact, now sells adzuki ice cream.

Ten years ago, Japan used to export adzuki beans to North America to meet the Japanese community’s demand for adzuki ice cream, but now the Japanese manufacturer has an adzuki ice cream plant in the U.S. and uses Canadian adzuki beans to expand the market.

Hashimoto: Yes, that is because Japanese prices are relatively high when compared to other origins.

Amakasu: Yes, bean exports can sell for as much as US$ 3,000 to US$ 4,000 per MT.

Photo: Häagen-Dazs nagomi adzuki ice cream Japonais

IFT: Why is that?

Amakasu: It is because production costs are so high in Japan as a result of government policies to protect farmers. So food products, like rice for instance, are more expensive in Japan than, say, in California.

Hashimoto: Because of the price spread, we started to import adzuki beans from Canada.

Amakasu: But to guarantee the sale of high-priced domestic production, the government imposes import quotas.

IFT: Getting back to consumption abroad, do you think the traditional Japanese use of beans can catch on throughout the world?

Amakasu: It is catching on. I hear the adzuki confectionary products are becoming popular in Paris. And we are seeing new uses, too. In Japan, Starbucks sells adzuki bean green tea. So there is definitely potential to expand this aspect of Japanese culture throughout the world.

Photo: Starbucks Red Bean Green Tea Frappuccino with adzuki bean muffin

IFT: Do you see the UN’s International Year of Pulses in 2016 as an opportunity to do that?

Amakasu: Our focus for International Year of Pulses in 2016 is to expand bean consumption in Japan. Interestingly, that means promoting uses other than the traditional confectionary uses.

For instance, at FoodEx Japan 2015, we undertook a number of activities to create awareness. That included distributing pulse cookbooks and offering tasting samples to people at the event. At that time, we heard from many people who did not know how to cook the beans.

So we are looking to expand pulse consumption in Japan by emphasizing the health and nutritional benefits of a pulse diet and introducing the Japanese population to new pulse dishes, like bean soup and bean curries. The idea is for people to start thinking of pulses as an essential part of a meal, not just a dessert or snack.


Japan Pulse Imports 2014

Adzuki beans 24,227 84,000 China (58.9%), Canada (37.6%)
Kidney beans 31,300 49,900 Canada (59.4%), U.S. (21.4%), China (11.4%)
Broad beans 5,000 4,900 China (77.6%), Australia (19.2%)
Dry Peas 15,200 16,100 Canada (49.5%), U.K. (23.4%), U.S. (12.6%)
Source: Japan Pea & Bean Importers Association, Peas & Beans Statistics, March 2015
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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist