You too can cook washoku / Warm up with kabocha in bean soup

Courtesy of Mari Nameshida

Pumpkin dumplings in sweet bean soup

By Mari Nameshida / Special to The Japan NewsI don’t know if I’ve ever seen kabocha pumpkin dumplings with sweet red bean soup in a restaurant — it’s more of a home-cooked meal. But I love this combination so much. I absolutely love pumpkin and this recipe is for my kabocha-loving friends!

Normally, people put shiratama rice dumplings or mochi into sweet red bean soup in Japan. I’ve heard that in some parts of Hokkaido where rice sometimes couldn’t be grown due to severely cold weather, such local people became used to making pumpkin dumplings.

Anko red bean paste is perhaps not to everyone’s taste. It’s popular in Asian countries including Japan, but I know there are also many people who don’t like it, especially those who grew up in Western cultures. Some students in my cooking class have said to me that they expected flavors of chocolate (because anko is dark) or salty bean paste (as in Brazilian feijoada stew) and then they’re shocked when it’s not. I know many people who have come to like it more and more once they’ve tried it.

Some readers may be wondering what the difference is between anko and zenzai. It’s only the texture. Anko is a paste and zenzai is a bit runnier, like soup. You can find cooked anko paste — canned or packaged — at any store, and you can use it to easily make zenzai by just adding water and heating it up.

But I highly recommend making it from scratch with dried beans to get the best taste and flavor, like other bean dishes. Although making anko paste requires at least an hour, there is a world of difference between the fresh stuff and the stuff you see in the supermarket. For me, it’s also nice that I can adjust the sweetness because store-bought anko uses a lot of sugar — normally more sugar than beans — so it’s too sweet for me. Anyway, it’s not at all difficult. You just need time to simmer the beans. So please try this sweet soup when you are stuck at home on a cold winter day! Adding a pinch of salt is the key to get more sweetness and achieve a balance of flavors.

Once you cook the beans and make the pumpkin dough, the possibilities are endless. The soup and the kabocha dough freeze well, so you can make big batches and use them when needed. You can enjoy the kabocha dumplings simply boiled and eaten with maple syrup, or put rice cakes or steamed pumpkin in the bean soup instead. The version I love best is vanilla ice cream dropped into hot sweet bean soup.

People often eat this pumpkin zenzai in Hokkaido. Meanwhile, people in the Tohoku region eat simmered pumpkin, people in Yamanashi Prefecture have noodle stew with pumpkin, and so on. Tradition has it that you will not get sick if you eat pumpkin on the toji winter solstice (which falls on Dec. 21 this year). Believe it or not, pumpkin definitely warms you up on a cold winter day. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Mari’s recipe for zenzai with pumpkin dumpling

Ingredients (serves 4):

Kabocha dumplings

150 grams kabocha pumpkin, cut into chunks

3-4 tbsp potato starch

(Or just place steamed or boiled chunks of pumpkin directly into the soup instead of making dumplings.)

Sweet bean soup (zenzai)

1 cup of azuki red beans (about 180 grams)

½ cup of white or granulated sugar (about 100 grams)


Pinch of salt


1. Steam kabocha for 15-20 minutes or until cooked. Peel off skin then mash in bowl while hot. Add potato starch and knead well until smooth. Adjust amount of starch, depending on pumpkin’s texture; it should be smooth but not moist. Roll into cylindrical shape about 3 centimeters in diameter, wrap and let sit for at least 1 hour.

2. To make zenzai, place beans and enough water to cover them in pot, then heat without putting lid on. After boiling for 10 minutes, drain. Lightly rinse beans, then replace in pot. Cover with about 3-5 centimeters of water then boil over medium heat for 1 hour or until beans start to soften. If during cooking water no longer covers beans, add 1 cup of water at a time.

3. When water just covers beans but there is no excess and you can easily crush a bean with your fingers, add sugar and pinch of salt and mix well. Cook for another 10-15 minutes.

4. Boil another pot of water and prepare a bowl of ice water. Cut pumpkin dough into 12-16 pieces then shape into balls and slightly flatten. When you make your desired shape, drop into boiling water. After dumplings float to surface, boil another 1-2 minutes, then take out and transfer to bowl of ice water.

5. Serve zenzai soup in bowl and add several dumplings. Optionally, you can add vanilla ice cream.

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