January 7th, also called jinjitsu, traditionally marks the last day of the New Year’s festivities, and of course the Japanese celebrate it with special food. In this case, they eat nanakusa gayu – seven herb soup – which gives an alternative name to this day: nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of Seven Herbs. Eating nanakusa gayu is supposed to promote health during winter, and give one a long life, of course.
Besides that, after all the gluttony of New Year’s feasting, nanakusa gayu is also meant to rest the stomach a bit, and indeed, the soup is based on okayu, a simple, soft, and very bland rice porridge that people usually eat when they are sick. They then add the following seven herbs to the soup: water dropwort (seri), shepherd’s purse (nazuna), cudweed (hahagokusa), chickweed (hakobe), nipplewort (koonitabiraku), turnip (kabu), and radish (daikon).
Of course, it is now in the middle of winter, and these herbs are not easy to be gathered outside; note that in ancient times however, the festival would have been on the seventh day of the first month according to the lunar calendar, that is, about two months later than today. In any case, the modern Japanese do not forage outside, but rather in their nearest supermarket, where nanakusa can be bought in conveniently sized packs – or even, as I found out, as a dried mixture or in reheatable plastic bags complete with the finished rice porridge.
Even though my cooking skills are not exemplary, I did not stoop that low, but indeed bought the smallest pack of fresh nanakusa I could find and made my own rice porridge. The result was rather bland to be honest, but the tastes of the different herbs did come out very well this way.
Below is the recipe I used to make the nanakusa gayu from scratch. I will not post it in my washoku category because the herbs are pretty much impossible to find outside of Japan. However, if you feel like trying it anyway, you can use other herbs that you like or can find.
Recipe for nanakusa gayu, seven herbs rice porridge (for two people)
– 2 cups rice (Japanese or risotto rice)
– 8 cups water
– 1 piece of kelp (optional)
Boil the rice with the water and salt until it has a very soft texture. There should still be some water left at the end. (Optional: you can add a piece of kelp to add some flavour, but remove it when the water starts boiling so the taste will not get bitter.)
– 1 cup of nanakusa or seven other herbs (nanakusa are: Japanese water dropwort, shepherd’s purse, cudweed, chickweed, nipplewort, turnip, and radish)
Clean the herbs and blanch them in boiling water, then drain, rinse, and cut in small pieces.
When the rice is finished, gently stir in the herbs and let them heat up for a minute or two. (*) That’s it! Enjoy!
(*) Alternatively, you can forgo the blanching if you add the herbs to the rice a bit earlier. I did it that way, and it tasted fine to me, which does not necessarily mean anything though…