Dango, Japan’s quintessential sweet, goes by different names nationwide. In the northern Tohoku region, it’s known as “dansu,” while in Niigata Prefecture, people call it “anbu.” In Shiga Prefecture and the Shikoku region, it’s known as “omaru.”
What is Dango?
Despite their similar appearance, Dango is a traditional Japanese sweet distinct from mochi rice cakes. Made from powdered grains and cereals, often rice flour (mochiko), dango is mixed with water, molded into balls, and then boiled or steamed.
Typically served on skewers in groups of three or four, they are coated in roasted soybean flour and seasoned with soy sauce and red bean paste.
Dango is enjoyed year-round and is a staple at Japan’s festivals and seasonal celebrations. Its popularity has even inspired the names of other ball-shaped foods and items, such as niku dango (meatballs) and tsuchi dango (seed balls). Skewered dango can also be seen in many family crests, including the Inaba-Dango crest.
History of Dango
Despite its current popularity, the dango has a rich history dating back centuries. Its origins can be traced back to modak, a sweet Indian dumpling used in offerings to the Hindu deity Ganesh. In Japan, references to dango can be found in various literary works dating back to the 10th century, including the Shin Sarugaku Ki, Wamyo Ruijusho, Chuujirui Ki, Shasekishu, Teikinourai, and Shuugaishou.
Originally, dango was made with leftover rice and grain husks, with different regions using different ingredients such as barley, wheat, millet, buckwheat, corn, beans, sweet potato, and chestnuts. Today, this ingredient diversity continues, adding to the charm and appeal of dango.
Interestingly, the dango was not just a food staple but also an essential role in religious offerings, particularly during Buddhist memorial services. As a result, the ball shape of the dango became a symbol of perfection and an important part of a village’s offering to the gods.
Variety of Dango
Despite its ancient roots, dango has evolved to encompass various flavors and styles. The classic sweetened anko filling remains the most popular, while kusa dango offers a unique twist with the red bean paste served separately or underneath the dango.
For those who prefer a different kind of bean, zunda dango swaps out the anko for a sweetened edamame paste, commonly enjoyed in the southern Tohoku region.
Dango also pairs perfectly with Japanese green tea, and the popular chadango flavor combines the sweetness of dango with the refreshing taste of matcha. No matter the flavor or style, dango remains a beloved treat for all occasions.
Kurumi dango has a deliciously nutty twist, made with rich and creamy walnut paste. Meanwhile, Ayame dango hailing from Toyama City is a rare delicacy fully enrobed in the sweet nectar of iris flowers. Kuri dango is another delectable variant, coated in a luscious chestnut paste. And for those who crave a smoky-sweet flavor, teppanyaki dango is the perfect treat with its savory teppanyaki glaze.
There are many multi-colored dango styles, but one that stands out is the Sanshoku dango, which features tempting ng pink, green, and white hues.
While many dango makers resort to food coloring to achieve the desired colors, culinary connoisseurs prefer natural ingredients such as plum for the pink and mugwort for the green. And to add a smoky flavor, some regions opt to sear their Sanshoku dango over flames typically used in the New Year’s decorations burning ceremony before savoring its delectable taste.
Dango is an integral part of Japan’s moon-viewing party tradition known as tsukimi. These white dumplings are often stacked in a small pyramid in the Kanto region. Meanwhile, the dango is coated in sweet red bean paste in Kansai. You can find them in white, pink, and green tea colors in Nagoya, all smothered in red bean paste. Another three-colored variation, uguisu dango, is served without skewers and paired with green tea.
Hanami dango is a special treat enjoyed during the enchanting cherry blossom viewing season. Although the sanshoku-style dango is typically savored during hanami, in Koriyama City, Fukushima Prefecture, the dango is served without skewers.
Instead, it is presented in a small box and generously coated with red bean paste. Meanwhile, in Yokote City, Akita Prefecture, hanami dango sits atop delectable red bean jelly. Interestingly, it is believed that hanami dango may have inspired the famous proverb “hana yori dango,” which translates to “dango over flowers” and implies that practicality should be prioritized over aesthetics.
Bocchan dango, a delightful Japanese sweet treat, is adorned with a vibrant medley of three distinct hues artfully interwoven on a single skewer. Historically, this tricolor palette featured vivid shades of red, yellow, and green; each imbued with a unique flavor profile. The scarlet sphere was crafted from sumptuous red bean paste, the golden orb infused with rich egg yolk, and the verdant delight fashioned from aromatic green tea or mugwort.
Yomogi dango is a delightful green dumpling typically enjoyed in the spring season in Japan, prepared using Japanese mugwort, roasted soybean flour, sugar, and red bean paste. Speaking of mugwort, there is a particular type of dumpling in Niigata Prefecture called sasa dango, which is seasoned with mugwort and wrapped in fragrant bamboo leaves. The sasa dango is available in two varieties: onna dango, which is filled with sweet red bean paste, and otoko dango, which is stuffed with a savory braised root vegetable mix known as kinpira.
The hearty and robust notes of sesame and soy are celebrated in the much-loved goma dango, a type of dango that is generously coated with sesame seeds and occasionally fried to a crisp. Another crowd-pleaser is the gomasuri dango, seasoned with a rich black sesame paste that imparts an indulgent flavor to the chewy dumplings.
Mitarashi dango, believed to have originated from a tea house in Kyoto, is often the first type of dango that comes to mind for many people. The name symbolizes the bubbles that appear on the surface of the purifying water at the entrance to the World Heritage-listed Shimogamo Shrine.
To make mitarashi dango, the dumplings are first skewered onto sticks in groups of three to five, then lightly grilled before glazed with a delectable sweet soy sauce. However, in Gifu Prefecture, the soy sauce used for the mitarashi dango is not sweetened. In Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures, this type of dango is known as shinko dango.
While some types of dango are well-known, others remain relatively obscure. Itokiri dango, for instance, is a lesser-known variety coated with a smooth red bean paste that has been carefully strained.
Nanko dango, a specialty of Ishikawa City in Fukushima Prefecture, is coated with various spreads. Meanwhile, suhama dango, made from soybean powder and starch syrup, has gained popularity in Kyoto due to its cute appearance.
As previously mentioned, rice flour is not the only ingredient used in dango. Shiratama dango, for example, is made from a mix of potato starch and rice flour. Soba dango, on the other hand, is a grayish dango made from buckwheat flour, known for its cereal-like taste, particularly popular near Jindaiji Temple in Chofu.
Kibi dango, made from millet flour, is a reminder of the humble origins of dango. It has gained fame thanks to its association with Momotaro, a folktale hero who used his last stories of kibi dango to enlist the help of his three animal companions.
It’s fascinating to see the diverse range of ingredients used in making dangoFor example, in Kumamoto Prefecture, ikinari dango is a popular variety made from a blend of sweet potato and rice flour, while in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, it is known as imokoi. However, some dango types are further removed from rice flour, such as nikudango, made from meat or fish pastes, and denpun dango, produced in Hokkaido and made from potato flour is baked with sweet boiled beans.
Famous Dango Stores
With such a rich history, there are many shops specializing in dango. One famous shop is Habutae Dango in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, established in 1819. The shop is reminiscent of the old Edo period and features traditional gardens, decor, and thick, disc-shaped dango.
Another shop, Kakko-ya in Ichinoseki City, Iwate Prefecture, was established in 1878 and is famous for its anko, goma, and mitarashi dango. The shop connects customers across a river via a cable with a box.
As can be seen, the variety of dango is wide. From rice flour to buckwheat, meat to millet, or chestnuts to green tea, dango can be made from almost anything.
It is an incredibly versatile food. Whether used to appease the divine or satisfy a sweet tooth, dango has evolved into the signature food for Japanese confectionery cuisine.