I have cooked dried beans in the past — lots and lots of dried beans — but have never taken as much care as I now do when I prepare kuromame, the elegant sweetened black beans eaten during o-shogatsu, the New Year celebration. The first year I was allowed to watch (for the first several years young cooks only get to watch), I was immediately impressed with the time and effort put into the process of handling each individual bean.

Dry, black soybeans are first selected for their size, shape and color. Large, perfectly oval dark beans are preferred for purely aesthetic reasons. Then, the beans are sorted through, with a small handful at a time placed on a white sheet of paper so that stones and other foreign matter may be easily seen and disposed of before cooking. Next, the beans are washed gently so that the skin is not bruised, causing the bean to burst when cooked. Covered in a good amount of water, the beans are let to stand overnight. This is the one part of the process in which a watchful eye is not necessary.

The next day, the soaked beans are set to the flame for the first time. The soaking water is used, but many chefs insist that the tannins released in the soaking process help to soften the beans. In this water the beans are brought quickly to a boil, causing foam and scum to rise to the top. The scum is removed and then discarded. While it contains properties that soften the beans, this soaking water also contains a lot of the compounds that make beans “the musical fruit.” Discarding it and starting with fresh water will make a difference to the stomachs of those who will later consume the kuromame.

The beans are drained and then covered in fresh hot water (cold water makes the beans shrink and toughen) and brought back to a simmer. It is important to maintain a very slow simmer that does not allow the beans to dance around the pot and break open. They say use a hotaru-hi (a firefly flame) — the gas should barely glow below the pot. Carefully add hot water to the pot as needed. The beans are cooked in this manner until they are soft enough to eat but still firm enough that they don’t fall apart.

In a home kitchen, at this point, sugar and seasonings are added and simmered with the beans a little while longer. Professionals — and those at home who have the time and patience — drain the beans, return them to the pot and cover them in a light, simple syrup (1 part sugar, 3 parts water) and simmer for 10 minutes or so. The beans are drained once again and a new, heavier syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water) is added, hot, to the beans. Simmer once more, and add usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce) at the very end so that its aroma is not cooked away.

The beans are removed from the flame and left to cool slowly in the pot so they absorb the syrup’s flavors. Stored in the refrigerator, the beans are generally served at room temperature.

One of the most elegant presentations of kuromame I have seen was during the last New Year celebration. On the third day of o-shogatsu, I was invited to the beautifully restored farmhouse of a friend, right in the heart of the Tamba region — where the most famous kuromame are grown. A very good cook with a wonderful eye, the friend fed us all of the traditional fare.

In a large, highly polished red lacquer bowl, she placed a small amount of beans and accented them with shimmering gold leaf. The black, red and gold were a bold statement, and we first feasted with our eyes and then with our taste buds.

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Mame ni hataraku, mame ni ikuru (To work fruitfully and to live faithfully)” is the phrase used to give these simple beans significance at the New Year’s table. The play is on the word “mame.” In this case, the word for bean is written with the characters for “loyalty” and “to bare fruit” (pronounced “mame” rather than the usual “chujitsu”) and used as an adverb. The term kuromame refers to the black soybeans themselves, whether fresh or dry, and also refers to the cooked, sweetened bean dish.

2 cups black soybeans,dry
250 grams sugar
2 teaspoons usukuchi shoyu

1) Wash beans and check for stones. Place in cooking pot and cover with four to five times their volume in water. Let stand for eight hours or overnight.

2) Place the pot on the stove, and bring the beans and soaking water to a boil on high heat. Skim initial foam and scum, remove from heat and drain.

3) Return to the pot and cover in hot water.

4) Bring to a boil and reduce the flame to the lowest setting, gently simmering the beans until tender, for one or more hours, topping off with hot water as needed.

5) When beans are thoroughly cooked, add sugar and soy sauce and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.

6) Remove from flame and let cool at room temperature. When cool, refrigerate until ready to use.

Next week tazukuri, part two of the New Year trilogy.

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