Dango is a Japanese wagashi that is perfect for high tea. Interestingly, this sweet treat has different variations enjoyed at specified times of the month and throughout the year! It is one of our favourite Japanese snacks to eat when visiting the country!
In this guide, we will teach you how to make three unique varieties of this lovely Japanese dessert. These are Hanami, Bocchan and Mitarashi sweet dumplings.
What is a dango?
Dango is a slightly sweet Japanese rice dumpling made from rice flour mixed with uruchi (non-sticky) rice flour and glutinous rice flour. The combination gives it a chewy texture.
While it is primarily colourless and tasteless, you might find various flavours infused with ingredients to make the dough balls flavourful. Matcha and strawberry powder are popular. You may also find them at cafes in Japan served with a sweet sauce as a dip.
Dango vs mochi
Dango has more rice flour than glutinous rice whilst mochi on the other hand is mainly made from glutinous rice. This difference means when you bite into the former dumpling, you’ll get a chewier tender texture. Mochi, however, tastes slightly stickier and stretchier.
Both dango and mochi are colourless and not very sweet in their purest form. So, the Japanese like to add some natural food colouring and flavouring to make it more appealing.
You can easily recognise the dango dumplings as round balls skewered on a stick. Usually, the Japanese eat them with soy sauce or red bean paste.
Mochi, however, looks like a rice cake. Locals process glutinous rice by grounding, then steaming and pounding it into a sticky ball to make mochi. You will typically see mochi served on its own. If you would like to learn how to make it at home, we have a comprehensive recipe on how to make mochi using a microwave!
Hanami dango is a sweet dessert that the Japanese eat during the sakura viewing season. The name hanami translates to sakura flower viewing in English.
The dessert is available in three colours: pink, pale green, and white, just like the cherry blossoms. In the Spring, when cherry blossoms bloom, Japanese picnickers will pack their bags that include the dessert.
While the desserts available at confectionary stores are often coloured artificially, traditional makers infuse the dumplings with natural ingredients. Another theory is that the colours are so because pink represents sakura, white represents the fading snow, and green represents sprouting grass. All these colours are to celebrate the beginning of Spring!
A unique piece of history to note is that the Hanami Dango originated within the noble elite. The royal chefs introduced them in 1598 at a grand banquet held by a warlord. The nobles ate the sweets while appreciating imperial court music and poetry. It quickly gained popularity when cherry blossom viewing became popular, and people started to make them for picnics.
More recently, it’s also made its way online. Players of Genshin Impact, a popular mobile game, can virtually cook the dumpling to restore their health.
Mitarashi dango is considered a popular version of this Japanese snack. Japanese cooks will dip the rice dumplings in a sauce with rice wine and plant starch, giving the dessert a salty and sticky taste.
In contrast to the hanami version, the Japanese do not eat them in any particular season and are a ubiquitous treat for in-between meal snacking. You can buy the skewered sweets at street vendors or convenience stores.
History of Mitarashi Dango
It’s hard to verify when Mitarashi dango made an appearance. One version of its origin story was invented in Kyoto as an offering at a shrine during the Aoi Matsuri festival.
Aoi Matsuri is an annual festival with a parade where people dress in royal costumes and parade around the streets of Kyoto.
The Japanese believe that the festival originated sometime in the 7th century when many natural disasters. The Emporer made offerings to the gods, and the catastrophes stopped.
The round mochiko balls resemble human heads and limbs and symbolised a sacrificial offering back then. The locals present the wagashi as a goodwill offering to the deities. After prayers, the worshippers ate the mochiko balls after dipping them in soy sauce and glazing them. Later on, the Japanese added brown sugar in the Taisho era.
Many food blogs also claim that this version of the wagashi is the first. It was first served at a well-known tea house in Kyoto known as The Kamo Mitarashi Chaya. That is how the dessert got its name!
Popular Anime reference
It has also made its appearance in the anime show Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba), gaining quite a cult following as the recipe is trending now.
Bocchan Dango is a tri-colour dessert that is less known than the earlier two versions. It consists of three mochiko balls on a skewer. Each one has different ingredients infused in it, which explains the different colours.
The first one is red, prepared with red bean paste. The second is yellow, as it has eggs in it. The last one is infused with green tea and looks green.
There are no particular seasons for bocchan, but it is often associated with the city of Matsuyama. The sweet treat appears in Natsume Soseki’s 1906 novel Botchan. The main character is a Tokyo academic who finds solace in the sweet dessert. Now, the dessert is well-known for bearing the character’s namesake.
On its own, dango does not have much flavour. They are mildly sweet and chewy. Some people prefer to enjoy them plain. However, some find the treat special if they enjoy it with the dipping sauce.
They are an everyday kind of traditional Japanese sweet that goes very well with green tea, especially matcha tea.
Each skewer of dango is about 160 calories. The calories come mainly from the dumplings, but the sauce and glazings may increase the overall calorie count.
Here are the dango ingredients that you need to get. First, you will need shiratamako, a type of starch extracted from short-grain rice that is grounded and turned into rough granules. You will also need joshinko rice flour made from urachi rice. Joshinko flour is made by grinding raw rice into flour, so it’s sticky.
We tested our recipe using this joshinko rice flour and this shiratamako flour, both conveniently available on Amazon.
Apart from that, you should also have mirin, which is a type of rice wine. You also need sugar, soy sauce and cornstarch to make the sauce. Do not forget the pink or green food dye if you want to add colour.
You can buy all these flours from Amazon online or any Japanese supermarket.
While the best combination for dango remains joshinko and shiratamako flour, you can also find dangoko to replace both flours. This flour combines rice and glutinous flour, but the ratio depends on the manufacturer.
We tried using it and found that the texture is firmer. This is most likely because there is more rice flour than glutinous rice flour. If you use this flour version, your dumpling is likely to be firmer and quite close to using joshinko and shiratamako.
Mochiko is another flour that you can use to replace joshinko and shiratamako. However, we found that using just mochiko will result in a soft, smooth ball. This is unsuitable for dango. They usually become too mushy and gooey when you have too much mochiko.
So, if you want the chewy, bouncy texture, you can buy non-glutinous rice flour and add mochiko in a 50-50 ratio. We do not recommend that you use just mochiko.
Note that these flours come from Japanese short-grain rice. Other types of flour, such as cornstarch, would result in a lumpy dumpling. Therefore, it is best to find suitable flour instead of substituting them.
Natural Food Colouring
Dango is a colourless dessert, but cooks add natural food colouring to it to make it look appealing.
Traditionally, ingredients such as purple shiso, salted pickled cherry blossoms, or the fruit of cape jasmine were what the locals used to colour the dumplings. However, in recent years, red food colouring has been used to dye it pink.
If you prefer natural food colouring, use beet juice or crushed freeze-dried strawberry or raspberry to make the pink hue.
Pastry chefs use yomogi (mugwort) grass for the green-coloured Dango in Japan. However, it’s probably hard to get yomogi if you live outside Japan. You can substitute yomogi with matcha green tea powder instead.
The most important thing to note about your wagashi is the dango sauce. You can add any type of sauce you like to dip in your dumplings. A popular version is anko or red bean dumpling. To achieve this, you just have to spread a layer of Japanese red bean paste over the dumplings.
Another popular version is mitarashi dango which has a sweet glaze sauce. You need sugar, soy sauce, mirin, water, and cornstarch to make this sweet glaze sauce.
You need to mix it all and boil it. Once the ingredients have dissolved, add one more tablespoon of water and cornstarch. Mix it until the sauce has a thick and heavy consistency, then turn off the heat.
You can also add matcha powder or use black sesame paste as a sauce to spread over the dumpling.
How to make Dango
To make dango dough, you’ll need joshinko glutinous rice flour and shiratamako glutinous sweet rice flour. We'll provide the exact measurements in the recipe for Hanami, Mitarashi and Bocchan dango below. But here are the basic steps to give you a quick idea of how easy these are to make!
- Mix the flour with water, then use your hands to make dough balls.
- Divide the dough balls and add food colouring. You can add matcha powder for a green tea flavour and the colour of the green balls and pink food colouring to the pink balls.
- Boil in water
- Skewer three on a stick and enjoy plain or with your desired topping or sauce!
To make the best dango, here are some of our best cooking tips from experience.
First, if you want your dough to be extra soft and pliable, add silken tofu instead of water. Be careful not to add too much, since the final texture should be a soft play-doh.
Next, measure the flour on a kitchen scale to get the right flour mix for your dough. If you want perfectly shaped dough balls, using a kitchen scale also helps you measure the amount of flour. Each dough ball should be no more than 20 grams.
Another tip is to knead the dough with your hands until it becomes smooth enough to shape into a ball. The sensation of the dough should feel like you are pinching your earlobe.
If you are adding food colouring, try not to pink more than a drop as the colour intensifies as you cook. We found that this helped to cook the dango in the lightest shade to the darkest colour to avoid staining the water.
Lastly, soak your skewers first, so you can easily slide your dough balls on the stick.
What to serve it
Since dango is a light dessert, other Japanese sweet snacks such as dorayaki would be perfect to have with it. During sakura season, it would be nice to also pair it with some sakura mochi!
If you want to eat the dessert alone, get a hot cup of green tea. Since it is slightly sweet, the green tea will balance the cloying flavour. We also think the dumplings are also best eaten when they are freshly boiled.
How to store dango
If you want to make the dough balls first, you can put uncooked dumplings in a single layer in an airtight container, then freeze for up to a month.
When you use them, boil the frozen dough balls without defrosting. Otherwise, you can boil and let them cool down, then pat dry and pack them into an airtight container. You can also freeze the cooked ones for up to a month, and when you want to eat them, just microwave or boil them till they are warm.
Dango Recipe (Hanami, Mitarashi, Bocchan)
- ⅔ cup joshinko (Japanese rice flour)
- ¾ cup shiratamako (sweet glutinous rice flour)
- ⅔ cup warm water
Flavours of choice:
- 1 teaspoon matcha powder
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 drop pink food colouring
- ½ cup anko red bean paste
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon matcha powder
- 1 teaspoon water
Mitarashi Sweet Soy Glaze:
- 4 tsps sugar
- 2 tsps mirin
- 2 tsps soy sauce
- 150 ml water
- 2 tsps potato starch or cornstarch
How to make dango
- Combine Shiratamako and Joshinko flours in a bowl. Stir in warm water while mixing with chopsticks. When the flour clumps together, start kneading until the dough is smooth. Then combine into one huge dough ball.
- Divide the dough into eight equal pieces. Then divide each piece into two balls. You will have 16 equal-sized balls. Each ball should be about 20 grams.
- Shape into a nice smooth round ball. If the dough is cracking, apply a small amount of water to the broken area to smooth it out.
- Boil a large pot of water on low heat. Once the water in the pot is boiling, gently drop in each dumpling. Then cook forabout 1-2 minutes. Remove the dumplings when they rise to the top. Place the dumplings in iced water. Once cooled, drain well and transfer to a tray.
- Skewer three pieces into a bamboo skewer. You are ready to serve if you do not have additional flavours or colouring to add!
For hanami and bocchan dango:
- At Step 3 (in the section above), divide the dough into three separate pieces. Then, for the hanami version, add one drop of pink food colouring into a single piece and work it to make a pink dough ball. For bocchan, mix in anko red bean paste into a single piece and knead it together gently until the colour is consistent.
- Next, add one teaspoon of water to 1 teaspoon of matcha powder to make a paste. Then add the paste to a dough ball and gently mix them.
- For bocchan, crack the eggs, separate the yolks and mix the dough ball into them. The egg yolk will stain the dough yellow.
For mitarashi dango:
- You will need to create the sweet soy glaze. First, combine all the ingredients in a saucepan without turning on the heat. You need to do so because potato starch turns lumpy once it is heated.
- Then turn on the heat and keep whisking until you get a thick sauce. You can now remove the saucepan from the heat and transfer the sauce to a container or bowl. Dip the skewered dumplings into the sauce or glaze them with it.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
You can give the dumplings a bit of char for taste if you have a kitchen torch. To do this, you can also use a broiler or use a non-stick frying pan to pan fry the surface of the dough balls.
We found that the dumplings can be sticky, so grease them first if you do not want them to stick together. The slightly burnt taste gives the wagashi a roasted flavour which goes well with the sweet dip.
Show us your creation
This Japanese wagashi is a sweet snack for when you feel like having a small bite to whet your appetite. They are also a visual treat! If you’ve tried to make them, why not tag us on Instagram @honestfoodtalks? We would love to see your final dish!
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