On the first of every month, I get out the glutinous rice and soak the adzuki beans. Though New Year’s Day is the only first of the month that is a formal holiday, thus mandating the celebratory sekihan (red beans and rice), there is a certain pleasure to welcoming each one with this favorite dish and having customers ask what the special occasion is.
|A summertime classic, shiratama zenzai|
Beans and rice. They are found paired in just about all cuisines and all food ways around the globe, with some cultures — most of South America, for example — making it their staple. While Japanese cuisine is generally accepted to be rice-based, I would argue that it is really rice-and-beans based. Rice generally makes itself known at meals as cooked white rice, but it is also seen as pounded glutinous rice (mochi), rice flour (shinko) or, occasionally, unhulled brown rice (genmai). The beans are most often hidden in the miso soup and the tofu floating in it, but also show up in sekihan or mamegohan (rice with green peas).
This pairing is not coincidence. Rice or beans alone don’t have a sufficient nutritional value, but combined they serve more than satisfactorily. Our bodies require basically 20 amino acids for survival. While plants create all of these acids through photosynthesis, we humans can only produce some of these essential acids. Specifically, there are eight amino acids that animal species must derive from other food sources. Meat and other animal-derived proteins (eggs) provide all of these acids and additional essential nutrients. Single plant sources, with the exception of a few “supergrains” (quinoa, amaranth) that are not widely consumed today, do not provide all of these amino acids and are therefore not complete proteins. But as any conscientious vegetarian can tell you, pairing certain plant food materials will yield complete nutritive protein.
The trick to making a complete protein with nonmeat sources is found in the trinity of grains (rice, wheat, corn, etc.), legumes (beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, etc.) and nuts. On their own, these foods would not provide us with the basic nutrients for healthy survival, but a combination of one item from any two of the groups completes the protein. So, white rice and miso soup are all you need to stay healthy.
Today the choice not to eat meat is generally health-based but is sometimes fashion-based. In times past when meat protein was not available, knowing what foods to combine to feed our bodies properly was a matter of life and sickness or death. This legacy can be seen in the recipes and classic dishes that we prepare and eat every day.
A classic “rice and beans” dish enjoyed in the summertime in Japan is shiratama zenzai. In the West, we mostly prepare and eat our beans and other legumes in a savory manner. In Japan there is a long history of beans being used in sweet desserts. The adzuki bean specifically is often seen as a sweet bean paste (an), either smooth (koshi-an) or chunky (tsubu-an). It is also made into zenzai, basically just slow-cooked adzuki beans sweetened with a good amount of sugar. In the summertime, this sweet bean soup is served with little dumplings made from glutinous rice flour (shiratama-ko).
The zenzai should be made ahead of time and chilled. Store-bought zenzai is fine but thin it with cold water before using. The dumplings should be made at the time of preparation and then chilled in ice water for best results. They may be stored in the refrigerator and refreshed in boiling water later for a satisfactory result. Shiratama-ko may also be used as is to thicken soups and sauces or to give body to other types of dumplings.
2 cups zenzai (see Aug. 12 column)
1/2 cup (or less) water
1 teaspoon matcha (powdered green tea)
1) Prepare and chill the zenzai. If using canned zenzai, thin and chill.
2) Place the shiratama-ko in a clean bowl and add half of the water and knead, adding a little water at a time until the shiratama may be rolled into a ball. It should not be runny or sticky but rather firm and moist.
3) Divide the shiratama in half, and add the matcha to half of the mixture to give color and flavor.
4) Further divide each half into 10 or 12 small balls.
5) Pinch each little ball to dent the sides, and drop into simmering water. When the dumplings float to the surface, remove with a strainer and plunge into ice water.
6) Put a half of a cup of chilled zenzai into four bowls and arrange several dried-off shiratama dumplings on top.
7) Present with hot tea. Serves four.