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Dango is a Japanese term that applies to many varieties of boiled confection. They make up one category of wagashi, a general word encompassing the full range of Japanese sweets. Most dango are made out of small balls of glutinous rice flour and water that are formed into dumplings and submerged in boiling water until firm. They're flavored with sweet or savory sauces and optional add-ons from bean pastes to tea powder. They also can be rolled in spices or seeds.
The mitarashi dango is widely believed to be the original version. These are plain dumplings that are skewered, grilled, and drizzled with a sweet soy or teppanyaki sauce. The term “mitarishi” refers to the water basin outside Shinto temples where the faithful wash their hands to purify themselves before entering, and mitarashi dango likely trace their origins to the centuries-old Shinto practice of leaving temple offerings for the gods. Stalls selling these sweets remain celebrated features of Japan’s many Shinto shrines into the early 21st century. While some shrine patrons still purchase the dessert for an offering, it is also are eaten as a snack.
Many Japanese make these sweets in their homes, and they come in all kinds of flavors and varieties Cooks can alter the dumpling's consistency by adding non-glutinous rice flour, or jyoshinko. The more glutinous rice included, the stickier and denser the end product will be.
Rolling the flour in sesame seeds produces goma dango, and seasoning it with black sesame paste — either as a sauce or an additive — yields gomasuri dango. Zunda dango are made by adding green soybean paste before boiling, while anko dango are made with red beans. Steaming the rice in bamboo leaves yields sasa dango, and skewering any variety creates kushi dango.
The variety a cook chooses to make depends in many instances on personal taste but can also be dictated by the calendar. Some are seasonal, and some are made in celebration of regional or national festivals. Hanami dango, for instance, are traditionally made in the springtime to coincide with cherry blossom viewing festivals. Andagi dango are regular features at summertime Obon festivals, particularly in the south of Japan, and tsukimi dango are a national favorite for the moon viewing festival in early fall.
While the traditional varieties are fixed, more and more modern cooks — particularly those outside of Japan — have taken creative liberties with ingredients, using flavors and additives that are seasonally and regionally available. Fruits, nuts, and local spices are among the things that can be added to give a more personal flavor.