Known as dansu in the Tohoku region of northern Japan, anbu by the people of Niigata Prefecture and omaru in Shiga Prefecture and the Shikoku region, dango is perhaps Japan’s quintessential sweet.
What is Dango?
Not to be confused with the popular mochi rice cakes made directly from rice, dango is made with from powdered grains and cereals, usually rice flour (mochiko), to which water is added, shaped into balls and then steamed and boiled.
They will often be found three or four at a time on a little skewer and coated in roasted soybean flour and flavoured with soy sauce and red bean paste.
Eaten throughout the year, they are associated with Japan’s many festivals and seasonal occasions.
The name for this common Japanese sweet is also the source of the name for ball-shaped foods and items such as meatballs and seed balls which are called niku dango and tsuchi dango, respectively. Skewered dango also feature in a number of family crests such as the Inaba-Dango crest.
History of Dango
Extraordinarily popular now, it is easy to forget that dango is an old food with a long history. Said to have originated with modak, an Indian sweet dumpling used in offerings to the Hindu deity Ganesh, there are records in Japan of dango as far back as the 10th century in a Heian period work of fiction known as the Shin Sarugaku Ki.
It is even mentioned in that period’s famous dictionary, Wamyo Ruijusho as well as in a cookbook titled Chuujirui Ki.
References to dango can also be found in the 12th and 13th century Buddhist parable works, Shasekishu and Teikinourai and in the 14th century encyclopaedic work Shuugaishou.
In a classic case of waste not want not, these ancient staples were made with the leftover pieces of rice and grain husks. Not limited to rice flour, dango were also made with barley, wheat, various kinds of millet, buckwheat, corn, beans, sweet potato, and chestnuts.
As a result, you will find that nowadays differing regions will use differing ingredients for their dango.
But more than just a survival food, one of the peculiarities of dango is that it was (and still is) often used as an offering during religious services, particularly during Buddhist memorial ones.
In this way, dango was thought to be an important part of a village’s offering to the gods in the old days. This attempt to satisfy the divine may be the reason why the supposedly ‘perfect’ ball-shape eventually became the prototype for all dango to follow.
Variety of Dnago
In any case, it has been many a year since those times and the variety of dango that is now available is truly staggering.
The most common is sweetened anko, a with red bean paste. A variation of this is kusa dango, or grass dango, where the paste comes as a dollop on the side or as a bed that the dango is placed on.
Zunda dango eschews the red bean paste though and is instead coated with a sweetened mashed edamame bean paste and is common in the southern part of the Tohoku region.
Dango is almost the perfect sweet accompaniment to the slightly bitter taste of Japanese green tea (macha). Even then, one of the most common dango styles is chadango which is, that’s right, dango flavoured with green tea. In this case, the dango is still sweet.
Kurumi dango made with walnut paste while ayame dango is an obscure dango from Toyama City that is completely covered with the nectar of the iris flower. Kuri dango is a dango that has been coated with chestnut paste. Teppanyaki dango is dango that has been coated with an often smoky but sweet teppanyaki glaze.
There are a number of multi-coloured dango styles available. Sanshoku dango is prepared with three different colours: pink, green and white.
While it is common nowadays to use food colouring, more culinary minded places will use plum for the pink and mugwort for the green.
And interesting titbit is that, depending on the region, this dango will be eaten after having been seared with the flames used in the custom of burning New Year’s decorations.
Dango is also very much part of tsukimi, Japan’s moon viewing party tradition.
In the Kanto region, these white dango will often be found stacked in a small pyramid while in Kansai, the dango are coated with red bean paste.
In Nagoya, you will find them in white, pink and tea colours all coated in red bean paste. There is another three-coloured dango called uguisu dango that is served without skewers and with green tea.
Hanami dango is dango eaten during the cherry blossom viewing season. While the sanshoku style of dango is common during hanami, in Koriyama City of Fukushima Prefecture the dango doesn’t come skewered.
Instead, they are placed in a small box and covered with red bean paste. In Yokote City in Akita Prefecture they are placed on a layer of red bean jelly.
Interestingly, hanami dango maybe the inspiration behind the famous proverb hana yori dango which means that food comes before beauty or, perhaps more simply, practicality comes first.
Another multi-coloured variety is bocchan dango which is prepared with three different colours and skewered together onto the same skewer.
Traditionally these three colours were red, yellow and green. The red was made with red bean paste, the yellow one from eggs and the green from green tea or mugwort.
Yomogi dango is a green spring dango made with Japanese mugwort, roasted soy bean flour, sugar and red bean paste. Again with the mugwort, in Niigata Prefecture there is a dango seasoned with it and wrapped in bamboo leaves known as sasa dango. There are two types: onna dango (female dango) and otoko dango (male dango).
The onna dango is filled with red bean paste while the otoko dango is filled with kinpira, a kind of braised root vegetable mix.
The rustic flavours of sesame and soy are championed by the popular goma dango which is dango coated with sesame seeds and is sometimes fried as well as gomasuri dango which is dango seasoned with a black sesame paste.
Kinako dango, one of the more common varieties, is a dango coated with toasted soy flour.
Said to have originate from a tea house in Kyoto, mitarashi dango is what most people think of when they think of dango. The name is said to represent the bubbles of the purifying water found at the entrance to the World Heritage listed Shimogamo Shrine.
Mitarashi dango is a dango that has been skewered onto sticks in groups of 3-5 and then lightly seared before being coated with a sweet soy sauce.
In Gifu Prefecture, however, the soy sauce isn’t sweetened while in Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures is it known as shinko dango.
Itokiri dango seems to be a relatively unknown dango that is coated with a red bean paste that has been strained until it is smooth.
Nanko dango comes coated with various spreads and is a specialty of Ishikawa City in Fukushima Prefecture while suhama dango is made from soy bean powder and starch syrup and is popular in Kyoto because of its cuteness.
As mentioned earlier, rice flour isn’t the only ingredient to be found in dango.
Shiratama dango is made with a potato starch and rice flour mix while soba dango is a greyish dango made from buckwheat flour. Its cereal-like taste is popular near Jindaiji Temple in Chofu.
Reminiscent of its common person’s origins, kibi dango is dango made with millet flour and has now become famous because of its association with the folktale hero Momotaro who used his last stores of kibi dango to secure the services of his three animal helpers.
Continuing on with the non-rice flour theme is ikinari dango which is made from a sweet potato and rice flour mix and is the specialty of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu. It can also be found in further north of Tokyo in Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture where it is known as imokoi.
Even further removed from rice flour is nikudango which is made instead with meat or fish pastes and denpun dango, a dango that is produced in Hokkaido and made from potato flour and baked with sweet boiled beans.
Famous Dango Stores
With such a long history there are many stores specialising in dango. One famous store is Habutae Dango in Arakawa Ward in Tokyo. Established in 1819, the store is a throwback to the old Edo period and features traditional gardens, décor and a dango that is disc shaped and thick.
Another store, Kakko-ya in Ichinoseki City in Iwate Prefecture, was established in 1878 and is famous for how it serves its anko, goma and mitarashi dango. A cable with a box connects customers with the store which lies across a river.
The money you place in the box is hoisted back to the store who then return the box with your order in it.
As can be seen, the variety of dango is truly expansive. From rice flour to buckwheat, from meat to millet or from chestnuts to green tea, dango can be made from almost anything.
It is a most versatile food and whether it is used to appease the divine or to satisfy a sweet tooth, dango has evolved to become the signature food for Japanese confectionary cuisine.