Yomogi Dango (蓬団子)

Day by day, my vacation slowly comes to its end. Today was my last day in Kansai, and after a short four days in Tokyo I will soon be making my way back home. Over my many times living in Japan, I have made many unforgettable friends, and so I always make it a goal to see them whenever I’m in the area. 

For my last day, I said farewell to my friend who graciously let me stay with him for about three weeks, and then met with one last friend for lunch in Kyoto. She recommended we eat at one of her favorite restaurants, a pasta place called Konana (こなな), in the underground of Kyoto Station. I’m usually not comfortable eating pasta in public (it’s kind of difficult to eat (especially with chopsticks) and potentially messy, in my opinion), but this was a good friend with who I could act earnestly, so I had no fear. (Just so you know, I still love the taste of pasta. No problems there!) 

We both ordered a lunch set special: for the price of a normal pasta dish, we also received a tea and small dessert on the side! After enjoying my bamboo shoot pasta and hot black tea, the waitress brought today’s special treat – mugwort dango. 

If you read my last post about dango, you may remember that the third and final mochi ball of a sanshoku dango is mugwort-flavored. The mugwort dango I had today was essentially a six-set of those mugwort mochi balls. But as the deep forest color of these mugwort dango would suggest, the flavor and aroma of this dessert was significantly richer than that of the pale-green mugwort mochi of my sanshoku dango the other day. 

Before I elaborate on those two senses, I want to bring attention to the sheer beauty of the dessert. For a complimentary dish, the restaurant did a great job of crafting a work of art. The angular arrangement of the dango sticks, the light brushing of soy bean powder (kinako), the shining traces of black sugar syrup (kurozato) – the dessert wasn’t complex, but it sure did look sharp. 

First bite. The satisfying gumminess of the dango easily satisfied my expectations of one of dango’s most iconic and appealing qualities. I don’t know if it was my imagination, but the mochi itself also had a subtle earthy smell from all the mugwort infused within. It wasn’t strong, but it was actually noticeable. Tastewise, the mugwort was just as light. Still tasty though. 

Second bite. I tried to focus my mind on the kinako powder, but it took me a while to notice its presence. Visually it stands out from the rest of the dark dessert, but there was so little of it that it was hard to appreciate its flavor. I love the taste of kinako though, so I appreciated the few moments I caught its nutty flavor before it quickly dissolved away.

Third bite. This time though, I scooped up more of the kurozato syrup from the plate before eating the dango. I think the syrup was the highlight of this dessert. It granted each bite a powerful, but short-lived, burst of sweetness that made the next bite that much more enticing to me. I’d describe the flavor like water drops falling on an ultra-hot pan, where the water is the syrup and the pan is my tongue. 

When the water drops hit the pan, they violently boil and evaporate within a second of hitting the surface. When the syrup first hit my tongue, it assaulted my taste buds with an outburst of sugary goodness. But just like the water drops, the feeling was fleeting; the thin veil of syrup quickly dissipated, leaving me with standard mugwort dango. I suspect that the smooth texture of the dango and the relatively-thin viscosity of the kurozato syrup prevents much syrup from adhering to the dango, so it’s hard to be overwhlemed by sugar. 

Bite by bite, my dessert quickly came to its end. Today may have been the last time I will have dango for a long time, but just like with friends I know I will make every effort to experience it again. But maybe there’s a chance I’ll run into some at some supermarket that sells Japanese sweets? If I do, I’ll be sure to have some syrup on-hand to make the reunion all the sweeter. 

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