Sweets containing beans are not just a phenomenon that exist within Asia. Red beans make their way into habichuela con dulce, a creamy blend of beans, sweet potatoes, coconut milk, and evaporated milk from the Dominican Republic that is topped with cookies, raisins, and cinnamon and commonly eaten during Easter.
In southern states across the US, navy bean pie, an alternative to sweet potato pie, is quite popular. Associated with the Muslim African American community, the pie features a custard bean filling flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. “One theory behind the bean pie’s potent symbolism is that it not only uses Muhammad’s beloved navy beans but is also believed to use them as a replacement for sweet potatoes, one of the most prominent symbols of traditional black cooking and a direct relic of the so-called ‘slave diet,’” wrote Rossi Anastopoulo for TASTE. “In some ways, swapping sweet potatoes for navy beans in a pie was akin to replacing one’s slave name with an X, as Muslim American historian Zaheer Ali has proposed.”
Beyond red beans, mung beans, and navy beans, black beans also make an appearance in a number of sweets. There’s black bean pudding soup with sago in a coconut milk broth (a Hong Kong classic), sticky rice studded with black beans and wrapped in banana leaves, as well as a black bean and rice pudding topped with coconut milk.
The reason that beans are so commonly found in desserts throughout the world have a lot to do with access to ingredients; every culture, no matter what corner of the Earth they’re from, has recipes that include beans in them. “Beans contain multitudes: They’re sturdy, reliable, versatile, an affordable vegetarian protein source,” notes The Cut. Why not add sugar to those beans and make a treat out of them?
It’s also not surprising that beans are highlighted in sweets from Asia, where the majority of people shy away from rich butter, milk, and dairy-based desserts. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, roughly 65% of adults struggle to digest lactose after infancy. That number is even higher for those of East Asian descent, where more than 90% of adults are affected. A simple solution for preventing a stomach ache from ice cream or creme brulee is to avoid those types of desserts entirely; bean-based desserts laced with coconut milk are not only lactose-free, but tend to be vegan, too.
If you’ve never before considered beans to be a remarkable ingredient for dessert, reconsider: it’s bean proven to make an excellent addition to any sweet treat.