Chinese Green Bean Dessert Soup 绿豆汤

The wonder,
The hunger,
And the sound of distant thunder.  ~ “Indian Summer”, Brooks & Dunn (released 2009)

Warm, hazy, windless weather prevailed all last week following a few weeks of a cooling trend. This kind of tank-top-and-shorts weather right around Halloween means  it’s Indian summer for us living in California. Soon after it will be time for sweaters and beanies. Just as in the song, Indian summer is also a time filled with longing and wonderment at what might have been. Perhaps the heaviness in the air is antithesis to movement and activity, explains the lounging around and pondering of…well, just thoughts.

soak, rinse, boil, serve!

In Traditional Chinese medicine, green beans 绿豆 (also called mung beans) are ‘yin’ 阴 and have a cooling effect on the body. Traditional Chinese medicine holds the theory of ‘yin’ 阴 and ‘yang’ 阳 maintaining harmony and balance in the universe, including the human body. It is also highly valued in Ayurvedic medicine for being tri-doshic, or the ability to balance all three doshas. In Ayurveda, the three doshas are biological energies found in the human body and mind.  Nutritionally, it is rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Green bean soup is also reminiscent of many ‘soup’ desserts from Singapore where I grew up.  Backed by these traditional approaches toward well-being and with the disinclination to be outdoors, it was time for this dessert soup.

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Chinese Green Bean Soup
with coconut milk (top); with tapioca pearls (bottom)

First of all, to call this dessert a ‘soup’ is a misnomer.   My coworkers were confused when I once referred to this soup as a dessert. It dawned on me that soups in most western cuisines are served as part of the main meal, usually a starter, or at most as a part of the main course. Dictionary definitions of ‘soup’ refer to liquid food made by boiling meat, fish or vegetable. And soups were savoury. The idea of a sweet soup, therefore, must have been quite an oddity. I wish I had a chance to share with them some of the many kinds of sweet dessert soups that are familiar to Asians.  I’m now making up for lost opportunities.

boiled with sweet potatoes

Secondly, what is commonly sold as yams in America and Canada is called sweet potatoes in Singapore, or 蕃薯.  There’s a great article here about the difference. In China, it is sometimes called 地瓜 (‘from the earth’ or 红薯, referring to the red-orange flesh.  Other Chinese names include 白薯, 山芋, 甘薯.  Don’t get me started on what’s it’s called in Mexico and other parts of the world!  Sweet potatoes have thin, smooth skins and pointy ends and have pale yellow, orange (yams in North America) or purple flesh (purple sweet potatoes). What Asians and Africans call yams have brown-black, bark-like skins with creamy white or slightly purplish flesh, are hard to find and rarely seen in America. Additionally, what Singaporeans frequently call yams are really taro. A story for another day. Needless to say, these differences in naming convention were a source of confusion when I initially moved to California. It wasn’t till I finally looked it up that it all made some sense, and gave some consolation that I wasn’t prematurely losing my marbles.

green bean soup with orange and yellow sweet potatoes

Staying true to its myriad names, there are various ways of enjoying the dessert. My favorite three, largely dependent on what I have on hand, are to enjoy it on its own, with a dash of coconut milk, and with sweet potatoes. Tapioca pearls are a nice addition, again dependent on whether I have any in my pantry. Tapioca pearls are tasteless but add a nice texture.

With that squared away, let’s get on with the cooking!

Chinese Green Bean Dessert Soup 绿豆汤
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A traditional warm weather Asian dessert with Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal benefits.
Recipe type: Desserts
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 4-6
  • 5oz / 140g green beans, washed & drained
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 stalk pandan (screwpine) leaves, washed and knotted into a bunch
  • ½ cup sugar, preferably rock sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 4 large thinly sliced ginger pieces
  • 1½ oz / 40g tapioca pearls (sago) rinsed 2-3 times (optional)
  • 8-10oz / 3-4 small yellow or orange sweet potatoes, cubed (optional)
  • 4oz / 120ml thick coconut milk (optional)
  1. Rinse green beans under water and soak for at least an hour, preferably overnight. Drain the beans.
  2. Boil 6 cups of water with pandan (screwpine) leaves.
  3. When water is boiling, add sweet potatoes. Boil till the outside is just starting to become tender.
  4. Add green beans and continue boiling at medium heat, stirring occasionally. Watch the pot - it can easily boil over and create a mess.
  5. Meanwhile, if using tapioca pearls (sago), rinse and drain 2-3 times to rid it of some of the starchiness. I find that it detracts from the texture of the green beans if the soup is too starchy. Set aside.
  6. When beans begin to split, add sugar and salt and stir till dissolved. You don't want to over boil it; the soup will turn mushy. There should be still some chewiness in the beans. (However, if preparing for elderly or folks with digestive ailments, a longer boil makes the beans easier to digest).
  7. Add tapioca pearls (sago) and stir till pearls rise to the top and look translucent.
  8. Ladle into bowls and serve warm as a dessert. Add 1-2 Tbsp of thick coconut milk to each bowl if desired.
  9. Leftovers can be refrigerated and served cold or warmed up.
Prepared in under 30 minutes if beans have already been soaked.

Rock sugar or palm sugar is best; table sugar leaves a very slight sour taste.

To retain some chewiness in the beans, do not boil for too long till it turns mushy. However, if preparing for elderly or folks with digestive ailments, a longer boil makes the beans easier to digest.

If using tapioca pearls, rinse it well under water to remove most of the excess starch.

Red bean dessert soup can be prepared in the same way.

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For another great use of sweet potatoes, try this Kale and Sweet Potatoes recipe that’s rich in vitamins and iron!

Other Chinese sweet dessert soups:

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