There’s nothing like a fresh-made Sasa Dango!

The seaside prefecture of Niigata, which lies along the coast of the Japan Sea directly north of Tokyo, is particularly known throughout Japan for its delicious rice and sake, but the people there also have a tradition of eating a sweet called Sasa Dango. It’s a rice cake made with mugwort and stuffed with red bean paste that’s wrapped in bamboo leaves, secured with string, and steamed.

▼ Bamboo leaves

It’s the kind of sweet that you’ll see and think, “I wonder how that’s made?” while never actually thinking about making it yourself, especially since it seems like there is a very particular method for wrapping it. But it turns out this sweet is actually easier to make than it sounds! When our Japanese-language reporter from Niigata, Udonko, learned this, she had to try it, and when she managed it easily, she decided to share the recipe so anyone, from Niigata or not, could try it.

The recipe itself came from the back of the Sasa Dango flour container, so it’s not her original recipe. However, she did learn how to tie the Sasa Dango from her mother, so it’s definitely got a touch of tradition to it!

・50 grams Sasa Dango flour (if you can’t find any, you can mix regular dango flour with mugwort flour)
・50 milliliters water (plus a little more)
・2 tablespoons sugar
・6 bamboo leaves
・2 strings of soft thrush
・Red bean paste as desired (whatever kind you prefer)
・A small amount of salad oil

Step 1: Lightly boil the bamboo leaves and the thrush so that they’ll become more malleable and won’t break easily.

Step 2: Add the sugar to the Sasa Dango flour, then add the water and gently mix. Let rest for one to two hours (but if you’re in a hurry, you can skip the resting phase).

Step 3: Sprinkling in water little by little, knead the dough until soft, about the softness of an earlobe.

Step 4: Use the salad oil to grease up your hands, then add red bean paste to the dough (if desired) and mold it into cylindrical shapes.

Step 5: Overlap two of the bamboo leaves, lining them up parallel so that one covers about half of the other. Make sure the “front” of the leaves, the side with the prominent midrib (central vein), is facing up.

▼ This is the “front”.

Place the dough in the center.

Step 6: Fold the empty flap of each leaf toward the center.

Step 7: Place the third leaf on top.

Step 8: Grasp each end of the leaves and seal the wrapping shut by twisting each end in a different direction, like a candy wrapper.

Step 9: Hold the string of thrush so that 10 centimeters (four inches) remain on one end. Then, with the longer end, begin the traditional-style tie by wrapping it twice around one of the twisted ends of the bamboo leaves.

Step 10: Pull the remaining string diagonally across the body of the Sasa Dango inside the leaves, and then wrap around the other end of the twisted leaves twice.

Step 11: Bring the string to the center and wrap it around twice.

Step 12: Finally, tie it at the center with a one-sided bow.

Step 13: Steam the whole wrapping on low heat for 15 minutes.

And then it’s done!

What do you think? Not so bad, right? Udonko had thought it would be too hard to try, but it turned out to be completely doable. If our reporter, who took forever to learn how to tie her shoes as a kid, can do it, you can too!

Once they were nicely steamed and Udonko had opened them up, the leaves released a delicious aroma of fresh thrush. Udonko couldn’t resist eating one right away. The plump and chewy texture was perfect, and the gentle sweetness was filled with the fragrance of mugwort, which wafted up through her nose and mouth. “This is the taste of home cooking!” she thought, sighing in bliss.

Of course, you can buy Sasa Dango in many places throughout Niigata Prefecture, but it’s a bit harder to find it anywhere else, so making it yourself might be a good option if you’re in another prefecture. Besides, there’s nothing like a home-cooked sweet!

This would also be a delicious way to finish off Niigata Ekiben boxed lunch, which you can find at Tokyo Station. Why not have a Niigata meal one day?

Images © SoraNews24
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