Sekihan: Japan's festive red rice

Sekihan, also called o-sekihan, is a type of sticky red rice served in Japan for special occasions. The rice is boiled together with red beans that give it a pinkish color and slightly sweet taste. Red is a festive color in Japan, and sekihan is eaten during special occasions throughout the year.

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Sekihan Japanese azuki bean rice

Today's tastier red rice

The rice of ancient Japan had a naturally reddish color. Rice was intimately connected to Japan's old time religion, and it was often given as an offering to the gods. The only trouble is that the rice was highly tannic and therefore not so easy on the tongue. This is why modern white glutinous rice has replaced it.

Japanese red rice
Red rice of an ancient kind, and the present rice. Photo by gtknj

Sekihan (赤飯, red rice) is the modern version of this ancient ceremonial rice, but we can assume that it tastes much better. The red is produced by adding azuki (小豆, lit. 'small bean') into the mix. These small russet-colored beans are the same beans used to make anko (餡子)the red paste found in Japanese sweets such as anpan (アンパン, sweet roll with red bean paste) and taiyaki (たい焼き, a sea bream shaped cake with red bean paste inside). The beans imbue the rice with their color and slightly sweet flavor.

Let's party!

Sekihan is what you serve when you're celebrating. It's commonly seen around the New Year's holiday. It also makes an appearance during birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations like shichigosan (七五三), a celebration for children who have reached a certain age.

In the past, it was also customarily made when a young woman reached menarche, often without telling the male members of the household what was being celebrated.

Shichigosan
Photo by Incanus Japan

It's so associated with celebrations that the idiom 'Sekihan ni shiyou yo' (赤飯にしようよ, 'let's have sekihan') means something akin to 'time to party!' This phrase is only used for something big and significant, like the announcement of a pregnancy or the passing of entrance exams. However, it can be used sarcastically to tease somebody who's full of their not-so-amazing accomplishment as well.

Making your own sekihan

Sekihan is one of the easiest Japanese dishes to make. You just put the beans into the rice cooker with the rice and water, push a button, and in about an hour you have sekihan. The key is to make sure you have the right kind of rice. It has to be Japanese glutinous white rice, which is known as mochigome or mochimai (both written as もち米). A mixture of roasted black sesame seeds and salt is usually put on top.

There are variations as well. Japanese glutinous rice is quite heavy so some people mix it with a lighter type of rice in the rice cooker. Others spike it with more sweetness, adding sugar instead of salt.

Sekihan is not only delicious and festive, but also good for you. Azuki contains high levels of vitamins, protein and iron. It promotes good blood circulation, which is why the Japanese consider sekihan a nice pick-me-up for when you're feeling tired. It's also a dish vegetarians, vegans and folks who are gluten intolerant can enjoy.

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