Sekihan (Japanese Red Rice)

Or azuki-gohan, or azuki-han, whatever you prefer.

Sekihan by Austin Keys, on Flickr (CC license)

The card uses the latter, but I’ve never heard it anywhere else. Whatever you want to call it, this is a recipe as old as Japanese cuisine itself: sticky rice with azuki beans, typically finished with a condiment of toasted sesame seeds and salt that transliterates to something along the lines of gomashio.

The flavor is extremely rich but only slightly sweet; when we get azuki bean paste in desserts, the beans have been boiled in sugar and water to sweeten them up considerably.

In the years following World War II, Pacific Stars And Stripes (then Far East Stars And Stripes) published a feature called “Old Japan Hands” with advice from westerners who had lived in Japan prior to the war for those soldiers learning the culture during the postwar occupation. Here’s an example from H. Vere Redman, a British citizen who worked for an American-owned newspaper in Tokyo until he was arrested on charges of spying at the outbreak of hostilities. He told his story about sekihan in the January 25, 1948 edition:

While in Sugamo Redman lived on a menu costing five yen a day–it is beyond his imagination to think what the other two menus, priced respectively at one yen and three yen a day must have comprised! He says he even grew to like miso shiru, the red bean soup served for japanese breakfasts, because it was the one thing which was warm when it reached him. He tells the story of how one night the guard brought to his cell a dish of sekihan, the red rice cooked with bean paste which is traditionally served on Japanese holidays.

“What is the reason for this special holiday meal?” inquired Redman (who has always heartily loathed red rice). “All prisoners are being given red rice tonight to celebrate the fall of Singapore,” replied the guard.

“But do you think that I, a Britisher, should be asked to eat red rice to celebrate a defeat for my country?” argued Redman. This gave the guard pause for thought. He scratched his head and went off to call the superintendent. Together they consulted in front of Redman’s cell, with the bowl of red rice reposing between them. (“It would have been a dreadful ordeal had I liked the stuff,” says Redman.) Finally they bowed ceremoniously and said that “Redman-san” was perfectly right; he should not be called upon to celebrate the defeat of his country, and with more bowing and scraping they took the red rice away.

Indeed, sekihan is a celebration food, and it is one of the few rice dishes in Japanese cuisine served at room temperature. 

From a box sold in Nampa, Idaho.

Azuki-han (Japanese Red Rice)

1/2 c. azuki (Japanese red beans)
5 c. rice [traditionally, glutinous/sticky rice]
1 tsp. salt

  1. Wash rice thoroughly. Add water to cover and allow to soak at least 1 hour.
  2. Wash beans; discard rinse water. Add 2 cups water and boil for 5 minutes. Discard this water. Again add water and cover to a depth of at least 2 inches. Boil until skin of bean is almost ready to burst, making sure beans are always covered with water. 30-40 min.
  3. Drain water from rice. Sprinkle with 1 tsp. salt. Add 4-1/2 cups of beans and bean stock (from step 2) to rice. Add water if necessary to make 4-1/2 cups. Cook as usual. Serve with sesame salt (or sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and salt).

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