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The world of Japanese dango

Lauren Kim

The word “dango” conjures up images of round mochi-like balls on skewers. Although not an incorrect assumption, perceptions of dango remains fixed on this image without really acknowledging just how diverse they can be. No two dango are created alike, and the multiple regions of Japan have their individual takes on each variety. They are not to be confused with mochi, which are made from steamed glutinous rice that is then pounded; dango is made with rice flour, called mochiko. Here, we delve into the histories and complexities of five dango varieties: two widely known varieties as well as three others which may be less well-known but no less tasty.

 

Mitarashi dango (御手洗団子)

 

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One of the most popular varieties is mitarashi dango, perhaps the quintessential Japanese snack. Its origins are shrouded in legend, but it came to prominence as an offering at Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine during Aoi Matsuri: one of the city’s three historical annual festivals. It is said that the round mochiko balls resembled human heads and limbs, and were eaten after being fired in soy sauce. This simple glaze was then combined with brown sugar in the Taisho era, making the first version of mitarashi sauce.

 

 

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Today, mitarashi dango can be easily bought at street vendors or convenience stores. The sauce has evolved with the additions of mirin and kudzu starch, which give the sauce its characteristic taste and gooey texture. It is mitarashi dango’s salty and sweet blend of flavors that have made it a global favorite among all ages.

 

 

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Hanami dango (花見団子)

 

 

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Hanami directly translates to “flower watching,” Japan’s annual spring tradition of  celebrating cherry blossom. To accompany the beautiful scenery, picnickers enjoy hanami dango: a classic pink, white, and green colored treat that signals the coming of spring. Unlike their current widely accessible state however, hanami dango’s origins stem from within the noble elite. They were first introduced in 1598, at a grand banquet known as the Daigo no Hanami held by the notorious warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Revelers would enjoy imperial court music called gagaku, and poetry. By the middle of the Edo period, hanami dango grew in popularity with the public as cherry blossom viewing spread beyond the elites. Hanami dango are now an integral aspect of spring.

Hanami dango’s three colors hold multiple interpretations. Some say the colors represent blooming sakura, white sake, and mugwort. Hanami dango available at confectionary stores are often simply colored artificially, but traditional dango makers infuse the dango with these natural ingredients. Others view the colors as an emblem of spring—pink representing sakura, white representing the fading snow, and green representing the sprouting grass.

 

 

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The presentation of hanami dango varies widely. In certain areas of Kyoto, a fourth mochiko ball colored brown is added below the green. Fukushima Prefecture’s Koriyama City abandons the traditional skewer while Akita Prefecture’s Yokote City flattens the dango entirely. No matter the variation, hanami dango is a clearly well-loved staple.

 

Tsukimi dango (月見団子)

 

 

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Like hanami dango, tsukimi dango (月見団子) are tied to an annual festival: the Moon Festival. Tsukimi translates to “moon watching,” and the dango are eaten in celebration of the autumn moon. The festival’s origins are said to be rooted in China, from which the tradition traveled to Japan during the Heian period. Moon-viewing was primarily enjoyed by the aristocratic elite during this era, but grew popular amongst the common people during the Edo period. Inspired by the Chinese’s use of mooncakes, the Japanese crafted tsukimi dango: round white spheres that resembled the full autumn moon. They were offered along with vegetables from the autumn harvest, including potatoes, edamame, and chestnuts. The moon was said to be brightest on the fifteenth night of the lunar calendar, and tsukimi dango were thus often arranged as a stack of fifteen.

 

 

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Tsukimi dango for display are quite large, reaching up to 10 cm in diameter. Due to their size and number, the dango require a square wooden stand to provide sufficient support. Their arrangement, like hanami dango, varies throughout the country. Some regions dye the topmost dango a warm yellow-orange with summer squash to represent the full moon. Others smear the dango with anko sweet red bean paste. Tsukimi dango’s versatility and long cultural history make for a satisfying treat.

 

Kibi dango (黍団子)

 

 

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Kibi dango are seemingly simple. Their only flavorings are sugar and a dusting of millet flour. However, kibi dango play a surprising role beyond the kitchen, extending into Japanese folklore. Kibi dango are the centerpiece of the tale of Momotaro—the tale of a peach-born boy who defeats demons with the help of his animal companions. Momotaro and his band have their strengths enhanced by magical kibi dango cooked by Momotaro’s adoptive mother. Kibi dango is thus wildly popular in Momotaro’s legendary birthplace of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, making essential souvenirs. The dango itself, however comes from Kibitsu Shrine, also in Okayama Prefecture. The kibi dango offered at the shrine was sold at the shrine’s storefront and garnered acclaim amongst locals, visitors, and even received praise from Emperor Meiji in 1892. Kibi dango’s popularity remains as strong as ever in the modern age.

Sasa dango (笹団子)

 

 

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Sasa dango are wormwood infused dango wrapped in sasa leaves—a relative of bamboo. They are a specialty from Niigata Prefecture, and although not widely known in the West, are a distinctly different take on the dessert. Like mitarashi dango, sasa dango’s origins are uncertain. Certain stories tell of struggling peasants mixing their bland rice with sasa leaves to spruce up their meals. Others tell of low-ranking samurai eating sasa dango along with their horses, who would graze on sasa leaves. No matter the story, the novel incorporation of sasa leaves with dango introduced a pragmatic but delicious approach to cooking. While also being conveniently abundant, sasa leaves were known for their myriad health benefits. Modern studies have shown the leaves’ abilities to inhibit the spread of mammary tumors. These benefits were said to be infused into the dango as the leaf-wrapped treat was steamed. Today, sasa dango are most prevalent for their role in Children’s Day, or Kodomo no hi in May. The leaves also double up as packaging. This unique presentation of dango encapsulates sasa dango’s simplistic allure—the act of unwrapping this dessert a unique experience for all.

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Lauren Kim

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