As the temperature plunge below zero Celsius, I am reminded of how much I miss the homemade Zenzai I had at a Japanese-run restaurant when I last visited LA, a rare find as most restaurants would attempt the usual short cuts with pre-made azuki or red bean paste or powder. One spoonful of this homemade Zenzai was enough to immerse yourself in the determination of the chef in bring out every essences of these tiny red coloured beans. The texture from the warm mochi heightens the experience as it lively dances between your molars.
Zenzai, or red bean soup refers to a number of traditional Asian soups, all made with azuki beans. In Cantonese cuisine, red bean soup is one of the most popular dessert. The love of this dear sweet bean among the Cantonese has led to continuous experiments in kitchen closets, generating an exponential explosion of ideas that put spins on this famed sweet soup that is traditionally served hot after dinner. From pairing the soup with the Chinese sesame glutinous rice dumplings to a fusing it with the Chinese tofu dessert, from coagulating it with coconut milk into a mousse-like pudding to freezing the leftover soup into icicles, we have just begun to explore the potentials of this bean.
Among all the various and fasinating trends, it has always been the traditional steamy one, with its comforting texture and luring scent, that captures my heart. Different from the Japanese cousin, the textural component of the Cantonese red bean soup comes from the cooking method for the beans. It takes a skillful master to simmer the selected red beans to perfection, where they remain visually intact, but melt into sandy sweetness with just the slightest pressure at the tip of your tongue.
The aroma from the red beans is an essential component, but if it is not accompanied with the luscious scent from the sun dried Chinese tangerine peels, this sweet soup would not be complete. Similar to some red wines, the magical scent of this peel increases in complexity and character as well as intensity with age and attention. I was often caught taking whiffs of my father's thirty years old batch, I have yet to try making red bean soup with it. I could hardly imagine the experience of taking a sip of the version from a famed Hong Kong restaurant, where their master secretly slip in a piece or two of their highly treasure tangerine peels, at an age of over 100 years!