If you are a fan of Japanese traditional sweets, especially sticky rice cakes (dango), then you might also love the sasa dango. Sasa dango rice cakes wrapped with bamboo leaves is a traditional sweet from the Nigata prefecture.
Sasa dango used to be the traditional sweet for the boy’s festival (Tango no sekku) on May 5, but because of its great taste, it is more popular now and is available throughout the year as a traditional souvenir from Nigata.
Sasa is a kind of bamboo leaf, and dango is the traditional Japanese rice cake. Thus, sasa-dango literally means “rice cake inside a bamboo leaf”. The tradition of sasa-dango began in the Edo period when Sasa leaves were commonly used as a way to preserve food. The history of this Japanese sweet comes from the story of a general of Echigo named Uesugi Yoshinobu, who at that time was carrying a lot of sasa dango as food stock for the long journey in the war period. At that time, sasa leaves are believed to be effective in disinfection to keep the food preserved for days.
Sasa dango is made from glutinous rice that is steamed and pounded into a rice cake then spiced with the Japanese mugwort (the mugwort flavor is nice and strong). The rice cake is then used to wrap the red bean paste, and then both are wrapped and tied using bamboo leaves (sasa). The whole thing is then steamed, and the process of steaming leaves a hint of the taste and smell of bamboo inside the rice cake. Sasa dango has two varieties differed by its filling: “Onna-dango” and “Otoko-dango”. Onna or female dango is usually filled with anko while Otoko or male dango is filled with kinpira.
They are absolutely delicious and they have the most environmentally friendly packaging compared to other Japanese sweets! If you are planning a trip to Nigata, you can find sasa dango in almost every souvenir shop around.
If you would like to watch sasa dango being made, check out this video.