The quintessential festive dish in Japan is sekihan (literally, “red rice”), which is served on special days throughout the year. The dish is made with short-grain or sweet mochi (sticky or glutinous) rice and red adzuki beans — the cooking liquid from the beans is what gives the dish its reddish hue.
Historically the color red was thought to have magical powers in Japan; it heralded good fortune and warded off evil. But these days sekihan is mostly eaten for good luck.
The tradition of serving sekihan on festive occasions has its roots in old Shinto rituals, when naturally red rice (probably closely related to what’s known today as Camargue red rice) was offered to the gods — with humans partaking of the leftovers. As time passed, short and medium grain rice varieties became more popular in Japan and long-grain red rice was no longer widely cultivated. By the late Muromachi Period (1333-1578) it had virtually disappeared, although it’s still grown in some regions where naturally red rice continues to be used in Shinto rituals. The custom of cooking adzuki beans with rice in a kayu (porridge) began in the Imperial court in the mid-Heian Period (794-1185), but as with many Japanese traditions serving sekihan on auspicious occasions was established during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
While adzuki beans were typically used to make sekihan, some regions — especially around Edo (present-day Tokyo) — used sasage beans (red cowpeas) instead. Adzuki beans have thin skins so they fall apart quite easily, which makes them ideal for mashing, as seen in the an bean paste that’s used in traditional sweets. Making sekihan with split beans was considered unlucky, especially by samurai. Sasage beans have a tougher skin and stay intact even if overcooked. These days both types of sekihan are served, depending on the household.
Sekihan has recently become popular as a healthier alternative to regular white rice. Adzuki beans are nutritional powerhouse: they’re great sources of fiber, B-vitamins, protein, minerals and polyphenols. You can find sekihan rice balls at convenience stores and supermarkets offer vacuum-packed servings of the red rice dish.
Sekihan is especially important on days that mark the growth of a child. It’s served on obi-iwai, a ritual during the fifth month of pregnancy to wish for a safe and easy childbirth; okuizome, a baby’s symbolic first meal when it is 100 days old; and shichi-go-san, a ritual for children aged 7, 5 and 3, who are blessed at a Shinto shrine.
Sekihan is traditionally cooked in a large cloth-lined steamer, but it’s much easier to make in a regular rice cooker.
By combining short-grain mochi rice with regular medium-grain rice you can achieve a sticky, glutinous quality without it becoming too gummy.
Adding a drop or two of vinegar makes the cooking liquid slightly acidic, which helps bring out the red color. The vinegar doesn’t affect the flavor in any way.
If you prefer the rice to be more muted in color, just leave the vinegar out and stir up the cooking liquid to expose it to the air, which will oxidize it a little and make it more colorful.
But, most importantly, pay close attention as you cook the beans — you don’t want any bad luck if they split.
Recipe: sekihan (red rice with beans)
- 2 cups (360 ml) short grain mochi rice
- 1 cup (180 ml) medium grain white rice
- 1 cup (180 ml, about 80 grams) adzuki beans
- Water for cooking
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2-3 drops vinegar (optional)
- Gomashio (sesame salt) to taste
Rinse the beans. Bring them to a boil in plenty of water over medium heat, and cook for three minutes.
Slowly add cold water to the pot to cool it down. When the water is lukewarm, leave the beans for 10 minutes, then drain.
Put the drained beans back into the pot with 1,200-1,400 ml water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn down the heat to simmer the beans.
Cook 15-20 minutes for new-harvest beans, an hour or more for old beans — when you bite into one, the center should still be a little undercooked. Drain in a cloth-lined sieve, reserving the cooking liquid. Let the both cool, and cover while you prepare the rice. Rinse the rice and drain for an hour then put the rice and cooked beans in a rice cooker.
Add water to the bean cooking liquid to bring it up to 450 ml. Add sugar, salt and vinegar to the liquid and stir before pouring into the rice cooker.
Cook the rice at the regular setting and serve with gomashio on the side.