Ever gotten the mochi topping that ubiquitous in frozen yogurt shops?
Ever had boba milk tea, known as “bubble tea” on the east coast?
What do they have in common? If you think of the texture and taste of the mochi topping, along with the way that boba is served (chewy or QQ treat in a liquid), that is kiiinda what red bean soup with yuanzi is. I wouldn’t officially call them mochi balls, even though they are also made of glutinous (or sticky) rice flour, because I think someone in Japan would be outraged! Anyway, I’ll call them yuanzi simply because this is glutinous rice flour used in a Chinese/Taiwanese food manner. Just as rice is everywhere in Asia, sticky rice and its products are also commonly found in other Asian countries, including but not limited to Japan, Korea, and Thailand:
Yuanzi are essentially little round dumplings of deliciousness. The Taiwanese use QQ to describe the elusively “chewy” texture of boba, and yuanzi are QQ in that same manner.
What about the red bean soup? Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste anything like if you were to mush up and add sugar to kidney beans. That would probably not taste that good. These are tiny red beans, also known as adzuki beans. You can think of them as a “dessert-only bean” if you wish!
For me, the tastiest and only red bean soup worthy of drinking is that which is cooked long enough so that the red beans form a nice “sandy” and rather homogeneous texture with the soup. It will also have an intense red beany taste. Red bean soup that is not finished cooking at high enough of a temperature or is just not cooked long enough, will have a weak red beany taste, and an ever-present layer of bland water floating on top.
You can always just make red bean soup, or hong2dou4tang1, to end a Chinese meal, but yuanzi are always a nice addition. Yuanzi is probably one of the first things that I learned how to make during my childhood:
“Do you want pink ones too (要不要粉红色的)?” my mom would ask my sister and me.
“YES!!” we would answer without hesitation.
After mixing the dough together in a manner of seconds, my mom would split the dough in two and put half in another bowl. She would then take the small McCormick bottle of red food coloring out of the mirror above the sink that opened up to small shelves just big enough for some spices and jars. She would put a few drops of food coloring into one of those bowls, and rub it into the dough until the dough turned all pink. She and my sister and me would make the yuanzi together and rub them into little balls before dropping them into the red bean soup. I would see little pink and white balls float in the hot soup, then it was time to eat! Keep reading for a recipe for hong dou tang and yuanzi, plus some ideas for variations.
Red Bean Soup with Sticky Rice Dumplings
Yields 4 servings
For the soup:
1 cup red beans (also known as adzuki beans)
4-5 cups water
1/3-1/2 cup white or brown sugar (to your taste)
For the yuanzi, or sticky rice dumplings:
1/2 cup glutinous rice flour
3 Tbsp water
a few pinches of tsp beet powder or a few drops of red food coloring (optional)
Directions for the soup:
1) Rinse beans with water and remove any foreign matter.
2) Dump the rinsing water, then add enough water to cover the beans by a few inches, and soak overnight.
3) Discard the soaking water, then put beans in a saucepan and add 4 cups of water.
4) Bring the beans to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer on low for about 50 minutes to an hour. Cook until the beans are soft and the skins are separating from the rest of the beans. If the beans are still really hard and not tender at this point, it probably means they are very old, in which case you will have to experiment with longer cooking times! You’re on your own for this one.
5) Take the lid off and increase the heat to medium until the soup is gently boiling. Add some water to adjust the soup for the thickness/thinness that you want, because some of the water has probably evaporated at this point. Add sugar to taste, and continue cooking for about 5 to 10 minutes until you see the liquid turn into homogenous, sandy looking soup when you stir it with a ladle or spoon.
6) Drink while it is hot or warm, or keep boiling if you want to make yuanzi, too.
Directions for the yuanzi:
1) Mix the water and rice flour together to form a paste that holds together. If the paste is too dry and does not form a cohesive blob or mass, add sprinkles of water a bit at a time until it does. Note that the firmer the paste, the more QQ or chewy the yuanzi will be. If you want pink yuanzi too, separate some of the white dough and massage in some of the food coloring or beet powder until it is evenly mixed.
2) Use your palms to form a log out of the paste, about the diameter of your fingers or however large you want these yuanzi.
3) Break off little bits of the dough and if you want, round out each bit to form a ball.
4) Gently place the balls of dough into the gently boiling soup. Yuanzi cook rather quickly, so when they float, they are ready to be eaten. If you overboil these, it’s okay, but the yuanzi will expand, absorb water, and become less QQ.
-Yuanzi are best eaten the day they are made, for the reason stated in Yuanzi Step #4, and also because over time they will make the soup more and more starchy from the presence of the glutinous rice.
-If you didn’t plan ahead to soak the beans, you can still make this soup, but it will take 1.5 hours instead of 50 minutes of simmer time.
-You can make this soup in the slow cooker- cook on high for 4 hours, or on low for 8 hours . Afterwards, you’ll need to bring it to a boil on the stovetop, and simmer for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. The ‘creamier’ and more red beany you want the soup to taste, the longer you should simmer it. Then, proceed to make your yuan zi.
-If you can get your hands on Taiwanese “red” sugar, which is dark brown and is drier-looking than typical brown sugar in the US, it would be a nice and add a hint of molasses-y taste to your red bean soup! You can also use a chunk of rock sugar as your sweetener, but it’s harder to measure, which is why I put measurements in pourable sugar.
-For a variation, add some Chinese dried dates (hong zao) and/or dried longan (gui yuan) to the soup at the start of the cooking time.