How to make a healthier red bean ice drink, Hong Kong’s favourite summer treat

  • Look out for saturated fat and sugar, one nutritionist says, and try this recipe for a healthier drink at home
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Doris Wai |

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In Hong Kong, red bean ice drink dates back to the 1970s. Photo: Shutterstock

What’s better than guzzling an ice-cold drink or diving into a refreshing dessert during a sizzling hot summer? Hong Kong has an amazing combination of both with the red bean ice drink (紅豆冰) – a tasty, drinkable dessert.

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What is red bean ice drink?

Resembling a parfait, this layered drink contains soft, sweetened red beans on the bottom and is filled with a mixture of sugar syrup, coconut milk and evaporated milk. A scoop of vanilla ice cream tops it off and pulls the drink together.

This uniquely Hong Kong beverage is representative of the city’s Cantonese and British history because of how it combines red beans with dairy.

It first appeared in the city in the 1970s. Back then, few people could afford a refrigerator. So they would head to a nearby cha chaan teng if they wanted to cool down with a sweet, icy beverage – the red bean ice drink was the go-to treat. The bean naturally has a sweet flavour that complements and thickens dishes, making it a great addition to any summer snack.

Adzuki red beans are a popular ingredient in Hong Kong desserts. Photo: Shutterstock

How healthy is this dessert?

While this thirst quencher can help you beat the heat, Kathy Ng Yiu-fan, a senior nutritionist at Kat-Spirit Nutrition Centre in Hong Kong, advises against having more than one per week.

She warns: “Just one serving alone exceeds half the daily sugar recommendation.”

One serving, or 300 grams, of red bean ice drink contains 225 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 28.5 grams of sugar – and that does not include the ice cream topping. According to the World Health Organization, teenagers should keep to 50 grams of sugar every day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

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Aside from the sugar content, people should also be aware of the amount of saturated fat it contains, which comes from the coconut milk and evaporated milk.

“Excessive levels of saturated fats can cause an increase in cholesterol that blocks blood flow, thereby increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke in the long run,” Ng cautioned.

Thankfully, she has a recipe for a healthier red bean ice drink that will keep you hydrated all summer long. Though the recipe may seem to take a long time, most of it is spent letting things simmer or cool. So you can read a book or watch a show while waiting for your summer treat.

Home-made red bean ice float

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 100 grams of red beans

  • 50 grams of sugar

  • a pinch of salt

Or 1 can of sweetened adzuki red beans

  • 1 cup of small ice cubes

  • 1/2 cup of skimmed milk

  • 1/4 cup of low-fat coconut milk

  • 1 scoop of plain, frozen low-fat yogurt


  1. Wash the red beans three times. Transfer the beans to a bowl, and add enough water to cover the beans. Soak them for at least two hours or preferably overnight. (If you are using the can of sweetened adzuki red beans, skip to step 5.)

  2. Drain the soaked red beans, and transfer them to a saucepan with 400ml of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn the heat to medium-low, and cook for 50 minutes. Stir occasionally.

  3. Add sugar and salt. Simmer the beans for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  4. The mixture should have thickened by now – about half of the beans should still be intact, while others will have started to fall apart. Turn off the heat, and allow the cooked beans to cool to room temperature.

  5. In a glass, add the red beans, ice cubes, skimmed milk and low-fat coconut milk. Top the mixture with a scoop of frozen yogurt. Stir well and enjoy.

Click here for a printable worksheet and interactive exercises about this story.

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