Califonia Bountiful

Showing their sweet side

March/April 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Baby lima beans star in Japanese pastries

Ellie Mizushima, left, and her grandmother Fusako Mizushima enjoy take-out manju and mochi from Osaka-Ya in Sacramento. The traditional Japanese pastries are filled with a sweet paste made from California-grown baby lima beans. Photos at left and top right: © 2018 Bryan Patrick. Photo at bottom right by Shutterstock

Forget chocolate cake, ice cream, apple pie and cheesecake. If you're looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, beans could be your next go-to dessert. Baby lima beans, to be exact.

On the savory side, baby limas frequently pair with ham hocks and are added to soups and casseroles. But in Japan, the flat, white beans are most often eaten as confection and made into a sweet bean paste known as "an" or "anko," a filling used in many traditional Japanese pastries such as mochi and manju.

"It's like going to a bakery and buying an éclair. It's something similar in Japan, where you'd buy a pastry that has an-paste in it," said Nathan Sano, manager of the California Dry Bean Advisory Board.

Anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the baby lima beans grown in California are shipped to Japan for paste making, he noted. With their clear, white color and neutral taste, baby limas—grown almost exclusively in California because of its climate and long growing season—allow Japanese food manufacturers and bakers to infuse different flavors and colors into the paste.

White bean paste, or "shiro-an," has a long history in Japanese cuisine, alongside the most common type of "an" consumed in Japan: a red bean paste made from adzuki beans. Shiro-an is particularly popular in regions such as western Japan, said Jeff McNeill, senior trade representative in Japan for the U.S. Dry Bean Council.

"Confection makers like to offer a variety of colors and products to consumers, so white bean paste is very useful for that," he said.

Baby lima beans grow in pods and are allowed to dry in the field, left, before they're harvested. They are turned into a sweet paste, right, used in Japanese confection. Photos: Ching Lee

The art of wagashi

Osaka-Ya in Sacramento has been using baby lima beans in its pastries since 1963, when the bakery was run by owner Linda Nakatani's parents. Today, she continues the tradition, using her mother's old recipe to make the paste, which appears in a variety of her wagashi, or Japanese-style confections.

There are many kinds of wagashi, but perhaps the two most common are mochi and manju. Mochi refers to the soft and chewy glutinous rice cake that's the base of many wagashi. This subtly sweet rice cake is traditionally stuffed with sweetened an-paste, but other fillings also are used, including ice cream and different fruits. Osaka-Ya, for example, makes mochi with a chocolate and a peanut butter filling that caters to Western tastes. Manju is similar in concept, except the outer layer is made of wheat flour and the pastry is steamed or baked.

Wagashi are traditionally served with green tea, especially as part of a tea ceremony. Some are eaten seasonally, on special occasions or simply as a treat. Much like a cupcake, Japanese confections usually come in single servings and range in flavors and forms. Some are as simple as a round bun filled with sweet bean paste; other pastries take on elaborate shapes that reflect the seasons. For example, on special occasions Nakatani makes uiro, a steamed rice cake similar to mochi that she sculpts into a cherry blossom, persimmon, peony, plum flower or matsutake, a prized mushroom in Japanese cuisine.

Linda Nakatani puts finishing touches on uiro, steamed rice cakes that contain a sweet paste made of baby lima beans. Photo: © 2018 Bryan Patrick

The artistry and craftsmanship involved in making wagashi take years to master, Nakatani said. She started when she was 10—at first just helping her parents at the shop before becoming a full partner in 1985. After her mother passed away in 1990, she continued working with her father until his death in 2009.

Because making the bean paste is so time-consuming and labor-intensive, Nakatani said it's becoming a lost tradition, noting that Osaka-Ya is one of the last Japanese bakeries in the region still making it from scratch.

"To make a batch of beans, it's a long process," she said. "We're talking all day."

Actually, the process starts the day before, so the dry beans can soak overnight. From there, the beans require at least four hours of cooking and then are run through a machine that removes their skins, to achieve the paste's smooth consistency. Now crumbly, the beans go through a rinsing process lasting three to four hours, after which they are drained and squeezed of excess water, forming a powdery consistency. The beans are then cooked with sugar to form a paste.

At one time, Nakatani said she considered using ready-made bean paste that's sold to home cooks, bakeries and other food manufacturers that make Japanese confections. But she said she prefers to do it the traditional way, using techniques her parents perfected and passed on to her.

Sutter County farmer Chris Capaul uses a 1953 harvester, left, which works well for harvesting the vine-type baby lima beans, right, that he grows. Baby limas also grow on bushes. Photos: Ching Lee

Family traditions

Though they are related, baby lima beans are not the same as the green lima beans most commonly found in frozen mixed vegetables. And despite their name, baby limas do not grow up to be large limas, no matter how long they are left on the vine or bush.

The crop is grown mainly in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, where it benefits from warm days and cooler nights. They're planted between late April and early June, and harvested in September or October.

Farmer Chris Capaul's family has been growing baby limas in Sutter County for as long as Nakatani's family has been making the paste.

Because beans and other legumes add nitrogen, an important fertilizer, back into the soil, farmers often grow beans in rotation with their other crops. Capaul, however, grows baby limas as his main crop, applying knowledge he acquired from his father.

"I'd like to say I'm an expert in growing baby limas because I watched my dad, grew up with him doing it, so I've got a lot of years behind me," he said.

Capaul has traveled to Japan three times with the U.S. Dry Bean Council to promote baby limas. There, he visited bean-paste manufacturers, of which there are hundreds in Japan, that turn baby limas into confection. On one trip, he visited a small, one-man Japanese bakery to see how the paste is used and even got to try making his own pastry with the paste.

Pastries with an-paste are ubiquitous in Japan, Capaul said. They're as common as chocolates in the United States, and people buy them as gifts or souvenirs.

"If you're in the airport in Japan and you go through the gift store, there are all kinds of little packages and they're all made with either baby lima bean paste or adzuki beans," he said.

Even though bean paste is the traditional form for which beans are used in Japan, efforts are being made to show Japanese customers more ways to enjoy baby limas and other dry beans, Sano said. They are warming to newer, Western-based recipes with beans, including beans used in salads, soups and chili.

At the same time, beans are increasingly turning up in American desserts such as brownies and pies as a way to boost their nutritional value, Sano said.

Ching Lee


Black bean brownies

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