Red bean ice is a popular Asian drink made of red beans, ice cubes, and milk. The drink is typically served as a sweet snack or a dessert. There are many different versions of red bean ice, and iterations exist in almost all Asian cultures. Many believe that the drink originated in Hong Kong, but red beans — and red bean beverages along with them — are ubiquitous from the tip of Japan through the coast of Singapore.
Hong Kong cuisine, along with the cuisines of most Asian cultures, often treats red bean as a dessert ingredient. The red bean, or azuki as it is known in Chinese, has a naturally sweet flavor that both complements and thickens a great number of dishes. Red bean cakes and pastries, ice creams, and dumplings are some of the more common examples, and red bean ice joins these ranks.
There are many ways to make red bean ice. The most simple version comes tiered in a glass. Sweetened red beans sit at the bottom, often in a sugary syrup, and a layer of ice comes next, which is topped with milk, often also sweetened. The drink is meant to be stirred before consuming, so that all of the flavors will blend together.
Many cooks garnish these Hong Kong beverages with a scoop of ice cream, or substitute coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk to lend a richer, sweeter flavor. It is also possible to blend all of the ingredients together in order to make a sort of red bean smoothie or milkshake. So long as the beverage is cold and contains red beans and dairy, it can properly be called “red bean ice.”
Different cultures, cooks, and restaurants have added their own twists and modifications to red bean ice, as well. A red bean bubble tea, for instance, is essentially red bean ice with tapioca peals or small slices of coconut jelly. Tea powder may or may not be included, and the beans may be fresh or reconstituted from red bean paste.
Red beans can also be blended or added into iced tea to make red bean ice tea. Such a drink is commonly served with heavy cream or sweetened condensed milk, and is most popular in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Singapore. Singapore cuisine also features a related red bean dessert, known as ice kachang, which is essentially a shaved ice dome set atop of syrupy mixture of red beans. The ice in this dessert is usually topped with colored syrups, condensed milk, and fruit toppings.