Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you … gain essential nutrients!

P12If you’ve lived or travelled in Asia, or even ordered dessert in one of Toronto’s many Asian restaurants, you’ve probably tasted the adzuki bean. Typically a rusty red colour with a rich, nutty avour, this little bean (simply called azuki in Japanese) is small but mighty, boasting a long history and a promising future.

Native to parts of east Asia, adzuki beans grow in moderate climates on vines that reach up to three feet tall. First domesticated around 3000 BCE, the vines and their beans now exist in three varieties: wild, cultivated and a weed form that is considered a pest to cultivation. The plant is an annual herb that sprouts bright yellow flowers and large green leaves in addition to the 5-mm beans, taking anywhere from 80 to 120 days to reach full maturity. Since the beans are averse to extreme weather conditions, both frigid and tropical, they’re particular about growing only in specific regions—and Japan is the world’s primary adzuki bean cultivator.

So where might have you seen these little guys before? Likely in both sweet and savoury dishes plus soups, teas and even soft drinks. Adzuki beans are used across the board in Japanese cooking, where they are also referred to as shozu, a Chinese loanword literally translating to “small bean.” You’ll find them in both bean and paste form, topping rice and salads, boiled into teas and hot soups and adding a punch of flavour to just about any dessert that comes to mind. As the adzuki bean craze continues to grow in popularity each year, major food and drink manufacturers are catching on and giving the public what they want. Red bean ice creams are a staple in Japan, and back in 2009 there was even a specially released, adzuki-flavoured Pepsi available.

If you’re not enticed by the bean’s slightly sweet, robust flavour and culinary versatility, perhaps the impressive amount of health benefits it has to offer will convince you to give it a try. Where to start? Though they may be small, adzuki beans are mighty healthy: one cup provides an array of nutrients, including significant portions of your recommended daily intake of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and vitamin B. As part of the legume family, they’re low in calories and fat, easy to digest and packed full of protein—perfect for anyone looking to lose or maintain weight, or those seeking out meat alternatives. High in dietary fibre, they help regulate blood sugar levels and aid in diabetes prevention. And with lots of folic acid, they’re perfect for pregnant women.

There’s no shortage of ways to incorporate adzuki beans into your diet. Indulge in one of the many Japanese red bean desserts, try them in a big pot of vegetarian chili or flip up a batch of Oprah’s adzuki bean pancakes.