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Springtime beans aim for the sky

by Makiko Itoh

Throughout most of Japan, June is the rainy season. While all that rainfall is great for rice paddies so that we can have delicious new harvest rice in the fall, it makes it a rather dull month for seasonal produce: The summer’s bounty of cucumbers, eggplants and so on comes a bit later. What are in season, though, are the cheerfully green and plump legumes vicia faba, called fava or broad beans in English and soramame in Japanese.

Fava beans are thought to be among the earliest cultivated vegetables: They most likely originated in the Mediterranean region or Asia Minor around 6000 B.C. They entered Japan around the eighth century and have been a favorite ever since, a welcome sign of late spring and early summer, since unlike many other vegetables they can’t be grown easily year-round. Soramame, the most commonly used Japanese name, means “sky bean”; they get this optimistic name because the pods can sometimes grow pointing up to the sky. The “sora” part is usually written with the kanji for sky, but another kanji used is the one that means “silkworm cocoon,” since the beans look a bit like round cocoons. They’re also called natsumame (summer beans) and tenmame (heaven beans).

When you’re buying fava beans in season, be sure to get ones still in their pods, since as soon as they’re shelled they start to lose their flavor. Fava bean pods are very plump and cushioned, so you need to get at least 20 times the volume in pods of the amount of beans you want to end up with. Shelling the beans then taking off the tough outer skins is hard work, but well worth it.

Young, green fava beans are eaten in all kinds of ways in Japan. The simplest way is to just take them out of their thick pods and boil them in salt water, then squeeze them out of their tough inner skins while eating. They make for a fun drinking snack, rather like edamame in their pods. Another great drinking snack is ikarimame, or angry beans — dried fava beans that are deep-fried until crunchy. Boiled and grilled beans brushed with a little soy sauce or sprinkled with salt are also popular to accompany a drink.

A quintessentially Japanese way to enjoy these seasonal beans is to cook them with rice. Parboil the shelled beans for a minute to loosen the skins, then peel. Put the peeled beans in a rice cooker along with some uncooked, rinsed rice and water, and add a dash of sake, a pinch of salt and some dashi stock granules before switching the rice cooker on. The rice will be wonderfully fragrant and tasty, and the beans will be soft and delicious.

My favorite way to enjoy soramame is as kakiage, a simplified version of tempura. Parboiled and peeled beans are mixed with the tiny dried shrimp called sakura-ebi, coated in tempura batter and dropped by spoonfuls into hot oil and fried until crispy. Served with tentsuyu (tempura dipping sauce) or with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon, they’re great with rice or a drink — a perfect morsel to brighten up a dull rainy-season day.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

  • Jack

    I never could understand why there were so few beans other than the standard Japanese types sold in the supermarkets. Pinto beans, lima beans and other varieties often found in other countries are not to be seen here.