If a picture is worth one thousand words, how many would an emoji go for? “Thinking Monocle” seems to be worth three. For those unfamiliar with the “Line of Three Balls” emoji living in the far reaches of your mobile library, your mystery in pink, white, and green is about to be solved. Today’s topic: dango, a small, typically round dumpling, typically made of rice flour. There is a tremendous variety of dango, found just about anywhere in Japan, from specialty shop to convenience store, festival vendor to tea ceremony. While most are steamed or boiled, some are baked. Some are skewered, and others arrive in a great dango pyramid. The most widely-eaten dango are made of rice flour, but this king of sweets can be created with plenty of ingredients, like potato and millet flour, to say nothing of flavors, color additives, and toppings! Like many Japanese sweets, this very old and much-beloved confectionery changes with time and space; each season has its dango, as do most regions of Japan.
First, a quick distinction must be made: mochi is made of pounded steamed rice, and dango is made from rice flour. Dango is also typically firmer than mochi, which is how it keeps its shape. Though you’ll encounter dango here and there that is a little...squished, that is by design (not gravity).
Because it is a centuries-old treat, the most common dango varieties are served at seasonal events and/or use ingredients common in Japanese cuisine, like sesame and soy. The way dango tastes depends on its composite ingredients, so the popular kinako dango, named for its healthy coating of fine, roasted soy bean powder, is sweet and nutty. Though their calls have gone quiet in recent decades, sweets vendors used to walk through towns and neighborhoods calling out to would-be customers. Dango, often served in skewers of three to five pieces, were perfect snacks to sell this way. Today, dango can still be found at festival stalls and specialty shops (not to mention convenience and grocery stores).
At the other end of the Fancy Spectrum are dango considered to be wagashi, confectioneries fit to eat with ceremonial-grade matcha. Two such highbrow varieties are anko dango, served in sweet red bean paste, and Mitarashi dango, glazed with a sweet soy sauce syrup (recipe below). Rounding out our dango highlights reel are two seasonal items: the first, Tsukimi dango. Tsukimi is a celebration and act: for gazing at the mid-autumn moon! On the occasion of Tsukimi, plain white dango are arranged in a pyramid of fifteen balls, an excellent contemplative snack and visual tribute to Earth’s celestial bestie. In the spring we eat Hanami dango, which, as you may have guessed, is the skewered pink, white, and green trio of emoji fame! Like the dango meant for autumnal moon-viewing, Hanami dango is meant for seasonal viewing, this time of sakura.
On with the show. While the following simplified recipe might disturb a Japanese pro, it is designed for the experimenter abroad, who may not have a robust Asian supermarket nearby.
Hanami and Mitarashi dango, the Easy Way!
2 servings each (4 total)
2 ⅔ cups Mochiko (sweet rice flour)
1 tsp Matcha powder (feel free to substitute a matcha latte packet in a pinch, though you may want to decrease sugar)
½ cup sugar
1 cup hot water
red food coloring
skewers for serving
Mitarashi Sauce Ingredients:
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp mirin
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 1 additional tsp water
- Combine mochiko and sugar in a bowl and very gradually add in hot water.
- Mix by hand until the dough feels like an earlobe (yes, an earlobe!) when you squeeze it.
- Divide the dough in half. Set aside one half for Mitarashi dango.
Hanami dango (first half of dough)
- Divide dough in three. Leave the first section as-is.
- Second section: add a small amount of water to your matcha, then knead into dough until it is even in color.
- Third section: add 1-2 drops of red food coloring and knead until the color is even.
- Roll each section into two even balls (six total). Boil for 5-8 minutes or until they rise to the surface.
- Remove and cool slightly, then skewer as seen in the emoji.
Now, for the Mitarashi dango:
- Divide dough into six small balls. Boil for 5-8 minutes or until they rise to the surface.
- Remove and cool slightly. Add three per skewer.
- Mix cornstarch and 1 tsp water. Set aside.
- Mix together water, soy sauce, and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Pour in the corn starch mix and stir to thoroughly combine.
- Bring to a boil again. Remove from heat.
- Lightly toast the dango in a dry non-stick pan.
- Glaze with Mitarashi sauce and serve immediately. Itadakimasu!
This brings us to the end of our Dango 101! Once you’ve finished the recipes, set a table and make it pretty. There’s a Japanese proverb in favor of the practical: "Hana yori dango," or "Dango over flowers.” We’d like to think that you don’t need to choose between the two.