Spring is upon us, which means a new season of flavours to brighten up our day-to-day cooking. Most of us probably think of the fruit and vegetables that will be at their peak in the coming weeks. But in the earliest days of spring in Japan, this means something a bit more specific: adding nanakusa, or seven herbs, to porridge.
Technically, nanakusa-no-sekku or Festival of Seven Herbs is on January 7, an occasion when many Japanese pause to enjoy nanakusa-gayu, or seven-herb porridge. Tradition- ally, nanakusa-no-sekku involved an extensive ritual. The occasion starts with picking the herbs the day before, then on the 7th arranging them just so on a cutting board with a mortar and pestle and chanting while the herbs are cut and prepared. The chant has regional variations, but its ultimate purpose is to pray for good health and to ward off evil.
The seven herbs included in this traditional dish are the first herbs of spring, the first bits of green that appear following the grey, cold winter. They include: seri (Japanese parsley), nazuna (shepherd’s purse), hahacogusa (cudweed), hakobe (chickweed), koonitabirako (nipplewort), kabu (turnip) and daikon (radish). The porridge itself is also different from what we might consider to be porridge in North America, where most people likely picture a bowl with a thick mixture of water and oats. Instead, this is made with a mixture of rice cooked with extra water to give it the porridge texture. Visually, this healthy porridge mirrors spring itself as the green of the herbs sprinkled into the whiteish porridge resembles the early spring flowers that manage to push their way through melting late-winter snow lingering on the ground.
These days, the ritual part of nanakusa-no-sekku has all but faded away to the point where most Japanese can simply pick up prepared packs of herbs at the local grocery store, and many likely can’t even name all seven herbs. Yet the seven-herb porridge remains popular in spring, especially after the indulgence of the holiday season and reduced activity during the colder months. It’s like a spring (and vegan) version of chicken soup that is not only nutritious but can help you revive that New Year’s
Even though the customary date for nanakusa-no-sekku has passed, here in Canada we are finally emerging from a long, cold winter, making it the perfect time to enjoy nanakusa-gayu. You’ll likely have a lot of trouble finding all seven of the traditional herbs outside of Japan, however you can still make a delicious porridge by using seven of your favourite fresh herbs like basil and parsley with whatever Japanese herbs you can find. For a little extra flavour you can try using a flavoured stock like dashi, or vegetable stock for a vegan version. Regardless, the spirit of nanakusa-no-sekku remains the same: to welcome the warmth of spring into your body and mind.