Made with sweetened rice balls on a skewer, Hanami Dango is a popular sweet enjoyed during the cherry blossom viewing in Japan. The dumplings come with three striking colors of pink, white and green. A sweet start to the arrival of spring!
As spring approaches, Japan turns into a shade of pink. It is a time of renewal of life and beauty, and we celebrate this turn of the season with cherry blossom viewing (or Hanami in Japanese). A tradition dated back as early as the 8th century.
During the cherry blossom viewing, the Japanese also enjoy different types of wagashi (traditional confectionery) including Hanami Dango (花見団子).
What is Hanami Dango?
Hanami (花見) means flower viewing (of cherry blossom), and during this season, many people go out for strolls through the magnificent columns of the flowering trees.
The Japanese have long been celebrated and admired the beauty of cherry blossom by having picnics beneath the blooms. At the picnics, we enjoy spring-themed foods in bento and wagashi which often incorporate seasonal flavors. One of the popular treats includes Hanami Dango (花見団子) or sweet dumplings made with rice flour and skewered on a stick.
Hanami Dango is made with 3 dumplings in pink, white, and green (top to bottom in that order) on a skewer. The pink and white sweet dumplings consist of sweetened rice flour, and the green one has a mild earthy taste as it is mixed with yomogi (mugwort) grass.
You can find pop-up food stalls that sell hanami dango during the cherry blossom season. Or you can make these sweet dumplings at home and bring them to a picnic to enjoy under the blooms.
Key Ingredients for Hanami Dango
1. Joshinko (Rice Flour) and Shiratamako (Glutinous Rice Flour/Sweet Rice Flour)
Dango is traditionally made with 100% (regular) rice (Uruchimai うるち米) or rice flour called Joshinko (上新粉). This is why dango is different from mochi, which is made with 100% glutinous rice/sweet rice (Mochigome もち米).
I find dango made with 100% Joshinko a bit too chewy and tough. So when I make dango at home, I always make it with half Joshinko and half glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour called Shiratamako (白玉粉).
It’s very important to know that both rice flour and glutinous rice flour are made from Japanese short-grain rice. I had never used other Asian variety of rice flour or glutinous rice flour (not made from Japanese short grain).
If you end up using non-Japanese flours, I would not know how it would work for dango in terms of flavor and texture.
It can be difficult to find Joshinko and Shiratamako when you don’t have a well-stock Japanese grocery store in your area. The best substitute would be Mochiko (glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour), which is widely available here in the U.S. (You can buy on Amazon).
Although shiratamako and mochiko are both glutinous rice flours, mochi made with these two flours is slightly different, especially in texture and flavor.
Mochi made with shiratamako has a very smooth, more refined, and elastic bouncy texture while mochi made with mochiko is less elastic and more doughy. My personal preference is shiratamako because it’s much easier to make delicious mochi, with a much better texture and flavor.
2. Red Food Coloring or Substitute
Traditionally the pink dango was colored with purple shiso (we say red shiso 赤しそ in Japanese), salted pickled cherry blossoms, or fruit of cape jasmine (kuchinashi クチナシ). However, red food coloring has been used to dye the pink-colored dango in recent years.
The natural options are harder to get when you live outside of Japan. If you prefer natural food coloring, I recommend using beet juice or crushed freeze-dried strawberry/raspberry to make the pink.
3. Yomogi (Mugwort) or Substitute
Yomogi (mugwort) grass is used for the green-colored mochi. However, it’s probably hard to get yomogi if you live outside of Japan. My local grocery store sells one brand (left product in the above picture), but I used the right one that my friend sent me from Japan since it has a nice dark green. You can substitute yomogi with matcha green tea powder instead.
Why Pink, White, and Green in that Order?
There are a few theories on why Hanami Dango starts with this particular order of pink, white and green. Here are the main two theories:
Theory 1: It represents the life cycle of cherry blossom – Pink buds, white flowers, and then green leaves.
Theory 2: A scenery symbolic of the spring arrival – red sun or pink cherry blossoms, leftover snow, and yomogi (mugwort) grass or green sprouts beneath the snow.
Which theory do you think is correct? They both sound good to me as Hanami Dango brings the happiness of the spring season.
Hanami Dango & Hana Yori Dango 花より団子
There is a Japanese saying “Hana Yori Dango” (花より団子), which literally translates to “dango (dumplings) rather than flowers”.
It means to prefer substance over form, as in to prefer to be given functional, useful items (such as dango) instead of merely decorative items (such as flowers).
What are your thoughts on this? I’m definitely looking forward to eating foods as much as admiring beautiful sakura!
Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want to look for substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, click here.
- 1 cup joshinko (Japanese rice flour) (scant 1 cup to be precise)
- 1 cup shiratamako (glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour) (scant 1 cup to be precise)
- ½ cup sugar (½ cup plus scant 2 Tbsp to be precise)
- ¾ cup hot water (scant ¾ cup to be precise)
- 1 Tbsp yomogi (mugwort) (If you can’t find this ingredient in a Japanese grocery store, substitute with 1 to 1.5 tsp matcha green tea powder.)
- 2 Tbsp hot water
- red food coloring (If you prefer to use a natural ingredient, other options to make dango pink is to use crushed freeze dry strawberries/raspberries. Add a little bit at a time to check on the color.)
- Gather all the ingredients.
- Put Yomogi in a bowl and add hot water. Use a fork to combine yomogi and water well.
- Set aside for 5 minutes. Then strain the yomogi using a fine mesh strainer. Discard the liquid.
- Combine joshinko, shiratamako, and sugar in a large bowl and mix all together.
- Add hot water in small increments to combine (NEVER pour water at once). Mix well before you add more water. When the texture of the dough is similar to an earlobe texture, it’s good to go. It’s a funny comparison but that’s the traditional way to check the consistency. If you put too much water and your dough is too soft, add more joshinko.
- Divide the dough into thirds. Add the red food coloring to one third, the yomogi to another third, and keep the last one as it is.
- Knead each dough until the color is even and well combined.
- Roll the dough into 8 even-sized balls for each color. I used a #60 cookie scooper that holds 2 tsp. I have to say it’s a bit bigger than the actual dango, so you can probably use 1 to 1.5 tsp. would be the ideal size. You might be able to get 12 dango total.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the white dango in boiling water until they start floating, about 8 minutes. Stir in the beginning so the dango won't stick at the bottom. Once floating, cook for another 1 minute.
- Remove the white dango from the water and immediately let them cool in iced water for 1 minute. Then transfer to a plate.
- Next, work on the pink dango, and repeat the same process. Then finish with the green dango. As you see, the boiling water changes color, so I recommend starting from light to dark color so the white dango doesn’t get stained.
- Put one of each color dango onto a skewer, in the order of green, white, and pink. Serve at room temperature.
- Put dango in an airtight container and keep at room temperature for up to 2 days. If you live in a hot climate, find a cool place to store, but not in the refrigerator as dango will become too tough. Enjoy in 2 days.
Other Dango Recipes
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 21, 2017. The post has been updated in March 2020.