Shiruko (Sweet Red Bean Soup) (汁粉)

Shiruko is a food whose main ingredient is boiled red beans sweetened with sugar, and in which mochi (rice cake), shiratama dango (Japanese rice-flour dumplings), and chestnuts stewed in syrup are added. It is also referred to as oshiruko.

Types of Shiruko

Shiruko is often categorized by how an (bean paste) is prepared.
There are 3 basic categories as follows:

Gozen jiruko
- Strained bean paste (smooth bean paste made by passing the beans through a sieve) is used.

Inaka jiruko
- Bean paste made from coarsely mashed beans is used.

Ogura jiruko
- Tsubuan (coarsely-mashed sweet bean paste containing pieces of adzuki bean's skin) is used.

The term 'zenzai' used in areas including the Kansai district means either Inaka jiruko (country style sweet bean soup) or Ogura jiruko and the term 'shiruko' specifically refers to Gozen jiruko made from the strained bean paste.

There are various types of shiruko including the ones as described below in addition to those basic varieties that have been previously mentioned.

Awa Zenzai
- Awa zenzai is made by pouring the thick strained bean paste over mochi made of millet.

Kaichu Jiruko
- It is an ancient Japanese fast food consisting of a wafer shell filled with powder of strained bean paste and arare (cubic rice crackers). To eat Kaichu jiruko, pour some hot water over and it will be ready.

Cream Zenzai (Zenzai with ice cream)
- Place either soft ice cream or regular ice cream on top of the chilled shiruko using tsubuan.

As a local specialty, shiruko is sometimes made from white haricot beans, chestnuts, winter squash, edible lily bulbs or green soybeans (and in Yamanashi Prefecture, there is also a type of shiruko known as 'azuki boto' in which hoto (wheat flour noodle dough cut into small pieces) is substituted for rice cakes.

In Sawachi-ryori (an assorted cold food served on a large plate) celebrated and commonly prepared in Kochi Prefecture and its surrounding areas, the ogura jiruko is served in a bowl as a sweet dish which is referred to as zenzai. The recipe for the above-mentioned zenzai is virtually identical to that for the ordinary ogura jiruko but, in some cases, naruto-maki (kamaboko with the pattern of the well-known tidal whirlpools off the shore of Naruto City), kamaboko (boiled fish paste cake) or a whole boiled fish such sea robin substitutes for rice cakes or rice flour dumplings.

History

It seems that shiruko has been in existence since ancient times in Japan and it is said to be one of the dishes conceived in days before sugar became available to enjoy the natural sweetness of red beans. A dish referred to as 'susuridango' is mentioned in a column describing godan (dessert served after a banquet including udon noodles, somen noodles, manju (a bun stuffed with red bean jam) in "Ryori Monogatari" (Tales of Food) written in 1635. To make the susuridango, stew dumplings made of mochi-gome (glutinous rice with its carbohydrate molecule consisting of 100% amylopectin) and uruchi-mai (glutinous rice with its carbohydrate molecule consisting of 80% amylopectin and 20% amylose) in a red bean flour soup, while the ratio of mochi-gome and uruchi-mai in the dumpling is six to four, add salt, then sprinkle some sugar. The susuridango is a type of soup. It was originally not a sweet dish but was seasoned with salt, sometimes being served as an accompaniment to sake. The shiruko eaten in Shimane Prefecture as zoni (New Year's special soup with rice cake as a main ingredient), which will be described later, is considered to have originally been a savory dish. It seems that the shiruko is related to some other food such as anmochi (rice dumplings coated with sweet red beans) and ohagi (rice balls coated with sweet red beans, roasted soybean flour or sesame seeds).

The food referred to as 'susuridango' still remains in existence in some areas including Oita Prefecture, where the susuridango sometimes means shiruko with corn flour dumplings or a dish like suiton (a dish made of dumplings stewed with vegetables).

At present, the heavily sweetened shiruko is being served at various places such as tea parlors, Japanese sweet parlors and tea stands. Some shiruko have region-specific characteristics such as 'Meoto Zenzai' (consisting of two small bowls of gozen-jiruko with rice flour dumplings) in Osaka and Zunda Shiruko (sweet green soybean soup with rice cakes or rice flour dumplings) in Sendai.

At Japanese sweet parlors and tea stands, in particular, salty shiokonbu (kelp cooked in brine and soy sauce) or Japanese pickle is often served with shiruko to break the monotony of the sweet taste of shiruko or to enhance the sweetness of shiruko. In Shippoku Cuisine (special Chinese cuisine developed in Nagasaki Prefecture into which Japanese cooking methods were incorporated), gozen-jiruko under the name of 'Ume Wan' is served as dessert. It is said that the term Ume Wan came from the practice in which shiruko was served with salt-preserved plum flowers floating on the top. It is said that Ume Wan is a legacy from times when sugar was a precious commodity, but according to the menus of the Shippoku Cuisine in ancient times, some sweets other than shiruko were also served; hence this opinion remains inconclusive.

Others

During the winter, 'instant shiruko,' similar to the conventional kaichu jiruko, which becomes ready for eating with hot water having been poured in the cup just like the cup ramen (instant Chinese noodles in a cup), and 'shiruko drink' which comes in a can ready for drinking just like canned juice are provided in the store.

On the occasion of Kagamibiraki (an annual ritual of cutting and eating a large, round rice cake, which has been offered to the gods to celebrate the new year, on January 11), Japanese people make shiruko or zenzai using Kagamimochi (large, round rice cake offered to the gods) at home. It is one of the representative foods for the New Year season. In Tottori Prefecture and Shimane Prefecture, there is a custom to eat shiruko as zoni on the New Year's Day. In some areas of the Shikoku region such as Kagawa Prefecture, rice cakes stuffed with red bean jam is used in zoni.

In Okinawa, 'zenzai' is not a type of shiruko but means a shaved ice made of shaved ice topped with haricot beans stewed mainly with sugar. See 'Zenzai' in Okinawa Prefecture for more details.

There is food similar to shiruko in China and Vietnam that is served with chestnuts, lotus fruit or tapioca dumplings. Additionally, there is dessert made from sweet bean paste of black sesame seeds or coconut milk in these countries, but the relationship between those food items and Japanese shiruko is unknown.