Food & Drink, Traditional & Culture

What Are Dango? The Magical Mochi Made of Rice Flour

Love mochi? You’ll love these fun Japanese sweets on a stick!

Diving Into the World of Dango

Dango, mochi, daifuku, wagashi, namagashi, rice cakes… when you arrive in Japan with a sweet tooth, there’s a lot to learn about the world of Japanese desserts, especially for the many travelers who have only had the chance to try mochi ice cream back home. The word “wagashi” (和菓子) refers to traditional Japanese sweets in general, and one of the most ubiquitous forms of wagashi is the humble dango. These chewy little balls of rice flour are colored and coated in a variety of flavors and served on a stick, everywhere from high-end traditional confectionery shops, to temporary stalls set up in popular tourist areas or next to lively festivals. Because of a number of similarities, dango are often compared to mochi, and even in Japan there are some cases where there’s a certain level of overlap (even locals get confused when trying to differentiate the two). But according to the most basic definitions, dango are their own unique creation, and these delicious traditional treats deserve some recognition!

The Difference Between Dango and Mochi

It’s a question that the average Japanese citizen might not be able to answer, at least not without a moment to think. What exactly is it that differentiates dango and mochi? Both Japanese specialties are chewy rice cakes, with the kind of bouncy texture that comes from using Japan’s much-beloved white rice as the main ingredient. But the big difference between dango and mochi comes from the way that each one is prepared. Mochi is traditionally made by taking cooked Japanese glutinous rice (literally called “mochi rice” in Japanese), throwing it in a large basin, and relentlessly beating the contents mortar and pestle style. Usually prepared by a carefully synchronized team of two, the mochi is pounded and kneaded until the individual grains of rice break down and it smooths out, becoming a solid sticky mass of chewy, soft, stretchy rice. Dango, on the other hand, are made with rice flour – already ground into a smooth powder in a mill. In rural Japan, the dango of centuries past were popular as a convenient way to make the most of food waste like crushed grains of rice and bits of millet. Modern dango recipes generally use a mix of different kinds of rice flour, with some glutinous “mochi rice” flour, and some flour made from other kinds of Japanese rice. The flour is mixed with water and the dango are made like dumplings, steamed or boiled into firm and bouncy little balls before being skewered in groups of three to five. For mochi and dango, the end result is undeniably similar, and modern factory preparation methods sometimes blur the line between dango and mochi (not to mention all the regional varieties that land somewhere in between), but in essence: mochi is pounded rice, whereas dango are rice flour dumplings.

Dango Must-Eats

At its core (literally just rice flour and water) the simple dango offers more of a textural experience than much real flavor, so over the centuries a number of different varieties have sprung up featuring colorful additives and flavorful sauces. Perhaps the most iconic version is called hanami or sanshoku (三色, three-colored) dango, and they come skewered in sets of three: one pink, one white, and one green. Hanami refers to the Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing, and some say that the pink represents the flowers, the white represents sake (a classic part of the hanami experience), and the green represents the verdant greenery. Other theories suggest that the reddish-pink and white represent good fortune, and the grass-green is a ward against evil. Either way, the green color in hanami dango is often made with “yomogi” (よもぎ), mugwort in English, which is a popular dango ingredient even on its own, lending the rice balls a fresh, herbal flavor.

For a stronger flavor experience, dango are sometimes topped with a thick coating of sweet anko red bean paste, or dusted with the satisfyingly nutty roasted soybean powder called kinako. The Japankuru team is particularly fond of another variety called mitarashi dango, which are grilled until toasty and then dipped in a sweetened soy-based sauce for the perfect balance of salty and sweet. The ways to eat dango are numerous, including endless regional variations, and even occasional savory dango dishes. If you’re curious about the magic of these bouncy, sweet, and (honestly) adorable Japanese sweets, you’ll just have to travel the islands of Japan to try them all!

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