Dumplings Divine: Welcome spring with Japanese dango

Finally, winter is on its way out; crocuses have appeared and bare trees aren't so bare anymore. Nothing says "spring" like cherry blossoms, though. It's been a long-standing dream of mine to be in Japan when the cherry blossoms bloom. Each year, during March and April, cherry trees burst into clouds of pink throughout the country.

The blossoming occurs in a wave, dubbed "the cherry blossom front." This front is forecast on maps and broadcast alongside local weather reports. To really experience the season while I was in Japan, I'd pack some local eats and head out to a hanami party. Hanami ("flower viewing") gatherings, involving the consumption of sake and portable foods, are a fun way to soak up spring and enjoy seasonal treats, especially dango.

Dango are small Japanese dumplings made from glutinous rice flour, or mochiko. These chewy, addictive dumplings can be savory or sweet.

Dango are versatile and easy to flavor with chocolate, extracts, green tea, beans or ground spices. For additional flavor and texture, I top dango with fruit compote, bean paste or thick, sweetened sauces. Sometimes in winter, I'll toast the dumplings before I pour toppings on. For a hearty meal, I toss a few raw dango into a miso-based soup.

I tend to be adventurous when I make dango, and have attempted wild combinations in the kitchen. It's interesting to see which inspirations will work. Green tea sauce dango – yes. Malted milk ball dango – nooo.

Feeding dango to unsuspecting friends is as fun as making it. Many try to equate the foreign texture of dango with something in their existing food repertoire. I've heard dango compared to gummy bears and jelly beans. To me, dango's texture is reminiscent of softened saltwater taffy and just as delicious.

A seasonal variety of dango served during spring is hanami dango, which consists of three dumplings – green, white and pink – served on a skewer. The green dumplings are flavored with yomogi, a popular herb in Japan. The pink dango are sometimes unflavored but are tinted with a dash of food coloring, and the white are left plain. The dumplings are very festive and perfect for a spring outing.

St. Louis has a slice of Japan's spring beauty in the way of the Missouri Botanical Garden's Japanese Garden, the largest of its kind in North America. Unfortunately, there's no picnicking allowed in the gardens, but don't be discouraged from having your own hanami party outdoors!

After an introspective stroll through the gardens, plan a gathering at one of the parks in the area. Send out invitations, featuring a picture of dango, to friends and family and invite them "To have a ball under the blossoms." Pick a place with budding trees and ample room for a blanket-based party. Bring plenty of warm sake, fresh-made dango and, most important, friends to enjoy the season with.

One secret to making attractive dango is to keep the balls round and smooth. Make sure the dough is well-cooked or it will be too moist to form into balls. Let the dough cool completely before forming it, otherwise, it'll be too sticky.

When forming the balls, keep your hands clean and slightly damp by frequently rinsing and then wiping them on a damp towel. This helps keep the dough smooth.

After the balls are formed, pop 'em in the freezer for 15 minutes. Freezing before skewering helps the dango retain their shape when being skewered.

Dango are easy to cook if you have a steamer basket or electric steamer. If you don't, place two coffee mugs of equal size right-side up in a large pot and add water around them. Place a heat-resistant plate, which fits loosely inside the pot, on top of the mugs and voila. Instant steamer.

Rachel Bigler is a Tower Grove South-based Japanese food and culture writer who lost nearly 200 pounds in part by eating traditional Japanese meals. She spreads the good word on her Web site, www.theanimeblog.com.