In honor of Chinese New Year, I’m sharing with you a Chinese dessert I have enjoyed for years. Traditional Chinese meals often end on a sweet note, usually with fresh fruits and sweet soups, such as ginger and yam soup, black sesame soup, almond milk soup. Sometimes they are served cold, but I prefer the hot soups because they can really warm you up from inside out, especially in this frigid cold we are experiencing right now!
If I hadn’t grown up eating sweet soups, I would probably finding it strange to be serving them as desserts. I think the sweet soups are meant to be nourishing and therapeutic. Ginger warms you up, black sesame and almond are good for the skin and hair, and red beans are suitable for upset stomach at least according to Chinese medicine. In the summer, sweet mung bean soups are often served to “cool” you down (if you are into the hot-cold/yin-yang concept).
This Coconut Red Bean Soup with Tapioca Pearls is a fusion of two classics. Classic red bean soup is usually made with red beans, dried orange peel, dried lilies, and lotus seeds. Coconut sago, or tapioca pearls, is another popular sweet soup. Anything with coconut milk in it can’t go wrong in my opinion, so I combined the two to make my ultimate favorite sweet soup!
The inspiration came from a kitchen accident. As I reached for the red beans I kept on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, a bag of tapioca pearls unleashed and rained on me. That was my worse nightmare – those pesky little things were everywhere. All over the countertop, under the fridge, under the oven. Let’s just say clean-up was not easy! It dawned on me that at the rate I’d been using tapioca pearls, the bag would last me years. Many more accidents would probably ensue, too, so I decided to add them to my red bean soup. Why not?
Now, about the beans. At the grocery stores I go to in Chinatown, there are at least two varieties of red beans available. The popular ones are Chinese red beans from Tianjin and Japanese azuki beans. Tianjin beans are smaller in size, duller and brownish in color, and not as starchy as the azuki beans. When cooked, the beans tend to fall apart and the resulting soup has a thinner consistency with the beans settling on the bottom of the bowl. However, they cook up faster, and can be a good choice if the sweet soup involves some ingredients that may thicken up the soup itself (for example, some people like to add mochi or rice dumplings). Or if you’re pressed for time.
For this recipe, I used azuki beans – which are rounder and brighter in color – because the beans tend to stay intact when cooked, unless you are boiling them for a very long time. Another benefit about using azuki beans in sweet soups is that the resulting soups are often thicker in consistency. This is what you can expect:
It really depends on your preference, and if you don’t know, get them both and experiment with them!
- 10 cups water, divided
- ¼ cup tapioca pearls
- 2 cups small red beans (or Japanese azuki beans), soaked overnight, rinsed, and drained
- Rock sugar, to taste (depending on your preferred level of sweetness)
- 1 13.5-oz can coconut milk
- In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add tapioca pearls and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Cover with a lid and remove from heat. The tapioca pearls should plump up and turn translucent in about 10 minutes (if not, let it reboil for 5 minutes and keep it covered again for 10 minutes). Drain the liquid through a sieve and rinse with cold water until water runs clear. Set aside.
- In a large pot, bring the beans and 8 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer, covered, stirring occasionally. Make sure there is enough water covering the beans at all time; add more boiling water if necessary. Cook for about 1.5 hours, or until the beans are tender and the liquid reduces to a thick consistency.
- Stir in rock sugar and allow to dissolve completely. Stir in tapioca pearls and coconut milk before serving. Serve hot or chilled.
*If you can't find rock sugar, you can substitute with white granulated sugar.
*Leftovers can be turned into popsicles!