Every year I eagerly anticipate the warm weather, for there is a very lovely cherry tree on my family farm, tucked away in the woods behind our pasture. It is a very tall tree and once the light pink flowers come out you can just see them over the tops of the surrounding growth. When I was little you couldn't reach the tree, as it was surrounded by thick thorn growth, almost convincing me it was really an enchanted tree. But sometime over the years the thorns were cleared and now there is a wonderful spot where you can easily have a picnic.
Cherry blossom season is a big deal in Japan. Staring on the southern island of Okinawa and slowly making their way up to Hokkaido, the blooming flowers make a fleeting appearance between March and May. It is highly anticipated, with progress reports on the television daily. The people of Japan eagerly waiting for the blossoms in their area to bloom so that they can participate in Hanami, cherry blossom viewing. It is a time honored tradition, stretching back at least as far as the Nara period (710-794), at first a practice solely for the elite, then slowly becoming popular with the lower orders.
Hanami is more than a time to simply look at and appreciate the beautiful and delicate cherry blossoms, it is also a time to get together and have a party. This was true in the Heian period (794–1185), when the noble lady Murasaki Shikibu described it in The Tale of Genji (the world's first novel), and it is still true today. People gather in droves, claiming the best spots possible to sit under the canopy of blossoms and enjoy company and the special foods of hanami. And of course, this was something I had to try for myself.
There are many different kinds of food that are traditional for this season, but the easiest for me to recreate was hanami dango, which are almost as pretty as the blossoms themselves. Dango are little dumplings, usually made with rice flour and often served three or four to a bamboo skewer. There are many different varieties, served with different sauces or glazes, and I've actually made them in the past but not hanami dango. What makes these special is the three colors, green, white, and pink. Though they are meant for hanami, both this variety and the others are available in shops all year long and are a very popular item. The recipe I used was from Japanese Cooking 101 and it was very easy.
The most difficult part of making dango is finding the mochiko, which is a flour made from sweet rice. It isn't always easy to find in the US, though you can buy it online with ease. It should be noted that this is not the same as what is labeled rice flour in America, which is made with normal rice and is not the same consistency. Mochiko may be labeled as "sweet rice flour" or "glutenous rice flour", though it does not contain gluten. It's actually an awesome flour, making many appearances in wagashi (Japanese confections). Aside from the mochiko, there are only a few other ingredients, the green dango are made with matcha green tea powder, and the pink are made with food coloring. Dango are boiled, giving them a wonderful soft and sticky texture. I think they taste a lot like cream of wheat hot cereal, but the texture is your classic mochi.
Once my dango were finished, me and my sister walked down to the cherry tree and had ourselves a short picnic. It was a wonderful way to spend a spring afternoon and the blossoms were so pretty. I can see why this is an eagerly anticipated activity in Japan. And remember, you don't need to have access to a cherry tree to enjoy hanami dango, their tasty and fun to make!
I leave you with this picture of our cherry tree in full bloom, and with a haiku I wrote for the occasion.
Until next time, enjoy the gifts of spring!