japanese dango

If you’re into anime (or have been forced to enjoy a TV series or two on behalf of someone you love), then you might already be familiar with dango. It’s a small, ball-shaped treat, often skewered with a bamboo stick. In anime, it's most commonly depicted in a tri-colored set of pink, white, and green. Don’t be mistaken, though; while animators love this variety of dango due to its memorable visuals; there are many dango varieties, most of them visually very distinct. So distinct, in fact, that often, certain types are assumed to be a different dessert altogether.

As one of the most popular wagashi (traditional Japanese small sweet treats), it's unsurprising that dango has evolved over the years and taken many forms. Still, while iconic in its home country, dango popularity is only now beginning to rise in the West, where it has been overshadowed by other Japanese confections, like Mochi and memorable, fish-shaped Taiyaki.

If you’re interested in discovering what has made dango so beloved over the centuries, then check out Yummy Bazaar’s newly assembled collection of Japanese dango stocked with a variety of classic options and new interesting twists on original flavors.

But if you need a little more information, then we’re here to provide answers to your most burning questions.

What is Dango?

Dango is a traditional Japanese dessert commonly made from glutinous rice flour (Mochiko), water, and sugar. However, over the years, certain regions have opted for other types of flour like plain rice, millet, or potato.

Dango is typically shaped into small balls and skewered on thin bamboo sticks in groups of three to five.

Classic dango is white in color, but it is often flavored with other ingredients like fruits, herbs, and even eggs, which changes its color. Pink, green, yellow, and orange are the most common dango colors besides white.

How is Dango Made?

These days, the most common way to make dango is to combine several types of flour. Plain rice flour, Uruchi (non-sticky) rice flour, and Mochiko (glutinous rice flour) all mixed together is considered the best combination that creates an ideal chewy texture.

The flour is mixed with sugar and kneaded into a soft dough with a paste-like consistency. At this stage, various flavorings are added if the recipe calls for it. The dough is shaped into small balls, each weighing around 20 grams.

Dango is most often steamed, but it can be boiled.

Once the dumplings are fully cooked, they’re cooled down a bit by being dipped in cold water and skewered. After skewering, they are covered in sauce and either served or additionally grilled or baked (Yaki dango).

What Does Dango Taste Like?

Plain white dango by itself doesn’t have a robust, distinct flavor. Even when flavored with strong ingredients like fruit or matcha, its taste is on the subtler side. What gives dango a specific flavor is a sauce. The rice dumplings themselves add texture to the combination rather than flavor. Dango has a tender and soft but chewy texture.

Are There Different Types of Dango?

There are many different types of dango, each with distinct visuals and flavor profiles. The differences vary from small (say, different colors) to significant (the dango looking like a completely different dessert). Additionally, you may encounter newer varieties that have given a new spin to the classic look, like being covered in chocolate or melted cheese or given unique shapes like hearts and animals (cats and bears seem to be particularly popular).

Here are some of the most popular varieties:

Hanami Dango is the pink, white, and green dango skewer so popular in media depictions. It’s also called Sanshoku Dango for its tri-colored look. Hanami dango is usually a combination of strawberry dango (pink), traditional dango (white), and matcha dango (green) and is a staple of the Japanese Cherry Blossom festival (Hanami). Despite its close association with the festival, the street vendors serve it year-round.

Bocchan (or Botchan) Dango is another tri-colored dango variety, a Matsuyama specialty. It’s sometimes mistaken for Hanami dango because it, too, sports a similar pink-white-green color combination. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that pink dango is of a darker shade, while white has a yellowish hue to it. Bocchan Dango is flavored differently from Hanami dango. The pink dango is flavored with Azuki red beans, the white dango with eggs, and only the green dango flavor is the same - matcha, though Bocchan dango green tends to be much darker, indicating higher matcha content. 

Tsukimi Dango is another dango variety associated with festivals, this time with the Mid-Autumn Full Moon Viewing Festival (Chushu no Meigetsu). Its most distinct feature is the arrangement: 15 dumplings, 13 of them plain white and two yellow, flavored with winter squash (Kabocha), are arranged in a three-storied pyramid. 

Ichigo Dango is a glossy pink dango flavored with strawberries.

Cha Dango is the name for matcha (Japanese green tea) flavor dango.

Yomogi Dango, also known as Kusa Dango, is somewhat similar to Cha dango color-wise, though it’s of a more muted green shade compared to the stark and bright green of Cha dango. It’s flavored with Japanese mugwort.

Sasa Dango is a variety of Yomogi dango, with either sweet or savory filling and wrapped in broad-leaf bamboo (Sasa) leaves. The one with sweet Anko filling is called Onna-dango (female dango), and the one with savory Kinpira filling made with roots, seaweed, and tofu is called Otoko-dango (male dango).

Andango or Anko Dango is a dango skewer covered in thick sweet paste made from Azuki red beans called Anko. The dango itself can be either plain white dango or flavored with different herbs (Yomogi dango and Cha dango are both popular bases for Andango). 

Zunda Dango is, arguably, a sub-type of Andango. It’s plain white dango covered in a thick paste made with edamame (immature soybeans) and sweetened with sugar.

Kuri Dango is also somewhat similar. It’s dango covered with sweet chestnut paste, most commonly found in Kumamoto prefecture. 

Goma Dango is a sesame-flavored dango. It can be either white dumplings covered with sesame paste or the dumplings themselves flavored with sesame. The version flavored with toasted black sesame is called Kurogoma Dango. Goma dango can be sweet or salty.

Kinako Dango is dango covered in toasted soybean flour (kinako). Like Anko Dango, various flavors can be used as the base, from plain white to matcha dango. 

Shoyu Dango is a savory type of dango that’s flavored with shoyu (Japanese-style soy sauce) and baked instead of boiling. It has a bright orange color, with visible charring. Sometimes Shoyu dango is served wrapped in dried laver (nori). It’s considered a separate dango variety called Isobe Dango.

Mitarashi Dango is, quite possibly, the most famous of the bunch, or at least (after anime has instilled the image of tri-colored dango in so many brains) the second most famous after Hanami dango. Mitarashi dango is a classic white dango covered in a caramel-like sauce made with shoyu soy sauce, sugar, and starch. Mitarashi dango is often smaller in size than other dango and is served on a bamboo skewer in groups of three to five. Its originally from Kyoto-based Kamo Mitarashi Tea House and is thought to have been a ceremonial treat.

Non-Rice Dango Varieties:

While glutinous rice flour, known as mochiko, is the most common dango base, it has been substituted for other ingredients in the past. Some of these varieties became iconic in their own right over centuries and now hold no less regard than classic dango. These include:

Kibi Dango is made with millet flour. It’s closely associated with folk hero Momotaro.

Denpun Dango is made with potato flour and baked with sweet beans. It’s a Hokkaido specialty.

Chocolate Dango may refer to two different desserts. Either plain white dango covered with chocolate paste or small chocolate balls skewered like dango and dusted with crushed nuts.

Niku Dango isn’t made from flour but from meat. It’s called dango due to a similar serving style: small meat dumplings (most often made from chicken) get skewered and covered in sweet tare sauce. 

What to Pair with Dango:

Vendors traditionally serve dango by itself, still slightly warm, accompanied by only fresh hot green tea (sencha). 

However, certain vendors and establishments have started to accommodate customers' tastes, and these days the accompaniments for dango tend to be more varied. Tea remains the most popular pairing; however, tea varieties other than sencha can now be found in more places, with matcha and hojicha becoming common alternatives. Wakoucha (black tea) remains comparatively rare, but even though not many street vendors carry it, it can be found at larger establishments.

Dipping sauces have also become more common, with soy-based sweet sauces served with more and more dango varieties instead of just Mitarashi dango.

How Long Does Dango Last?

Dango is best eaten fresh, but if you’ve purchased more than you can consume in one go or just want to stock up for the future, then don’t worry; dango won’t go bad overnight.

Depending on the ingredients and how it’s stored, dango can last from a few days up to a couple of months. Dango covered in various sauces like Anko, Zunda, or Kuri will have a shorter shelf life than plain or flavored dango. 

How to Store Dango to Prolong its Shelf Life:

You can store dango in two ways to prolong its shelf life: in a fridge or in a freezer. Either way, you’ll need to place the dango in an airtight container to protect it from contamination.

It’ll last around 3 to 5 days if stored in a fridge. If stored in a freezer, it will be able to survive between a month (more “fragile” dango) up to a couple. 

Frozen dango will have a chewier, somewhat harder texture after thawing. Let it thaw in a fridge instead of using the microwave to maintain the original texture as closely as possible. If you prefer your dango warmer, heat it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds only after the dango has fully thawed.

Protip: Industrially manufactured, packaged dango is easier to maintain, and the packaging will likely come with guidelines for optimal storing.

Is Dango the Same as Mochi?

While dango and mochi are both types of sweet Japanese rice cakes, they are not the same (even if many sources tend to use their names interchangeably). The most significant difference is, of course, the base. Mochi is traditionally made from Mochigome (steamed and pounded rice), not Mochiko. And even if modern recipes tend to substitute Mochigome for Mochiko, modern dango being made with a mixture of different flour types still maintains differences between the two.

That said, the differences can be pretty subtle if we put visual indicators aside (mochi is larger, dango is smaller and typically served on a skewer). They’re both stretchy and chewy, with a mild taste even with additional flavorings. But those who are well-acquainted with the texture of both mochi and dango claim that mochi is stickier and stretchier while dango is chewier.

Is Dango the Same as Daifuku?

Daifuku is mochi with a filling, so no, it’s also not the same as dango. Dango with a filling doesn’t have a separate name.