Mitarashi dango, rice dough dumplings with sweet-salty sauce

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Even if I am Japanese and certainly love most Japanese food, I don't like all Japanese food. And I must confess that I am not too fond of a lot of traditional Japanese sweets that are based on sweetened beans. For the most part they are way too sweet for me, and if I make them for myself I'm always adjusting the sweetness level, as with my ohagi or botamochi.

Mitarashi dango, however, are my absolute favorite traditional sweet. They are not really that sweet really - that shiny caramel colored sauce (which is called mitarashi sauce) is sweet and savory at the same time. It goes perfectly with the bland, slightly chewy dango or dumplings. (Dango is the name for unfilled solid dumplings.)

You will probably see the dango just plained boiled more often than not. But grilling the dango makes them taste much better, in my opinion.

IMPORTANT: Please read before proceeding

Many people have written in over the years wondering about substitutions for the two rice flours, which are the traditional flours used to make mitarashi dango. I've suggested a couple, but this recipe really does work best if you can locate the flours here. They are very commonly available in Japan, and any well stocked Japanese (as in JAPANESE, not generic Asian/Chinese/Korean) grocery store should carry both - or, at least they should carry the shiratama-ko.

Another reason some people have trouble with this recipe is that they do not follow the instructions! Do read through carefully and follow them. You must adjust the consistency of the dough and knead it until smooth before cooking. If you don't do this you are going to have hard dumplings or ones that disintegrate in the water. Follow the instructions! If you can't do that you will fail. Thank you.

2 different rice flours

2 kinds of rice flours are used here. The combination makes a dumpling that is chewy and bouncy but not too sticky.

Joushinko or Johshinko (上新粉, sometimes spelled Jyoshinko) is made from regular Japanese rice (uruchi-mai).

Shiratamako (白玉粉)is sweet or glutinous rice flour, or mochiko, mixed with a little corn starch or potato starch. If you can't find shiramako, you can use mochiko with about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or potato starch flour added. You can find all of these flours at a Japanese grocery store. You might be able to find them at a health food store too, since rice flour is more popular nowadays as a gluten-free thickening agent for sauces.

The hardest part of this whole recipe is finding the two rice flours. Look for them at a Japanese grocery store - a general Asian grocery store may not carry them.

If you can't find joushinko and/or shiratamako or mochiko...

You must use rice flour. Wheat flours or other grain flours will not work!

For the joushinko, substitute regular rice flour - one that's not labeled "sweet" or "glutinous". For the shiratamako or mochiko, substitute 'sweet' rice flour (one that is labeled 'sweet' or 'glutionous'), which is not actually sweet to taste like sugar; it's just more sticky. You can find these rice flours at general Asian or Chinese grocery stores, as well as some health food stores. Please note that using these different rice flours will change the flavor and texture of the dango, but at least you will have dango with more or less the correct consistency. (You can even experiment with things like red rice flour instead of johshinko.)

(Edited to add:) Can you use all mochiko? You could, but the dango will be of a different texture, gooey and hard to mix up. Please do try to find the non-glutinous type of rice flour to add to mochiko. I have seen both kinds sold at many Chinese grocery stores, so it should not be that hard to find if you have access to a Chinese or general Asian grocery store.

Recipe: Mitarashi Dango

[UPDATE:] I have revised this recipe to use ml ONLY, to avoid confusion, since 1. cup sizes differ depending on where you are (in the U.S. 1 cup = 236ml, in Japan 1 cup = 200 ml, in the UK 1 cup = 250ml. Please use a cup with ml measurements on it to have better chance of success. Please note that the ratio of flours to water is the most important thing! You want 2 parts joushinko or rice flour made from medium grain rice, 1 part shiratamako or mochiko (plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch in the case of mochiko), and 2 1/4 parts water. Always add the water gradually until you have the right doughy consistency!

Once you have found the rice flours, the rest is a breeze.

This amount makes about 25 dumplings (5 skewers).

For the dango (dumplings):

  • 220ml joushinko
  • 110ml shiratamako, or mochiko plus 1 Tbs. of cornstarch or potato starch
  • 265ml or so of hot tap water (water that's hot if you put your hand in, but doesn't burn you)
  • A pot of boiling salted water

For the mitarashi sauce:

  • 1/4 cup (55 ml) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (105ml) water, with 1 Tbs. cornstarch or potato starch or arrowroot dissolved in it
  • 1/8 cup (28 ml) soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. mirin
  • 1/2 Tbs. rice vinegar

Equipment needed:

  • a pot for boiling the dumplings
  • a bowl for mixing the dough
  • the same bowl or another one to cool the dumplings
  • a grill or grill pan
  • a small pan to cook the sauce
  • bamboo or wooden skewers

Mix together the joushinko and the hot water. Add the shiratamako. Mix until it forms a soft dough that feels a bit dry to the touch. It's a very pleasant dough to handle.

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Divide the dough into 25 pieces (you can do this by forming a long log and cutting it, or just divide it up in the bowl and eyeball it). Make each piece into a little round ball. It doesn't have to be perfect in shape - a little bumpiness is fine.

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Bring a pot of water to a boil and add salt, as you would for boiling pasta. Add the dumplings a few at a time to the pot. After a few minutes, the dumplings will come floating to the surface. Boil for a further 3-4 minutes, then scoop out with a slotted spoon or similar.

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Immediately dump the dumplings into a bowl of cold water.

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Put the dumplings on skewers, 4 or 5 per skewer. Try to pierce the dumplings in the middle.

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Grill the skewered dumplings on a grill or a grill pan, turning several times, until nice burn marks form over them.

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Here are some finished grilled dango skewers.

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While you're grilling the dumplings, make the mitarashi sauce. Combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a small pan and bring to a boil. Cook until the sauce has thickened. The more it cools, the more viscous it will get. You can make the sauce in advance too.

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Pour the sauce over the still warm skewered dumplings. They are best eaten right away, but you can make them in advance too, as long as you bring them to room temperature before eating.

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Variations

You may have seen these with a sweet azuki bean paste on them. I don't like them that way, but if you do, you can use this tsubuan recipe, perhaps mashing up the beans a bit more to make it smoother.

The dumplings can also be eaten grilled and just brushed with soy sauce. Apparently, this is the way they were eaten until sometime in the 20th century. (Mitarashi dango as we know them now were invented in the 1930s at a dango shop in the Kansai area.)

Plain maple syrup is a nice sauce for these too, if not too traditional.

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