New Year holidays in Japan are typically celebrated for 3 days. However, on the 7th of January, this would be the day when people eat porridge or rice soup cooked with herbs known as nanakusa-gayu to bring health and longevity. The custom is called Nanakusa no sekku or the Festival of Seven Herbs.
The porridge is usually consumed for breakfast on the 7th day or for dinner on the previous day. The New Year may be associated with indulgence, so the porridge will be eaten during the 7th day to soothe and let the digestive system rest, so it is sort of like a detox period. The porridge is a variation of okayu which is eaten when one is sick.
The custom is said to have been adopted from an ancient Chinese custom which is done to ward off evil spirits. Besides that, since greenery is not abundant during the New Year, the custom of eating green herbs during the beginning of the year is akin to wishing the year to be filled with an abundant harvest.
Traditionally, the 7 herbs used in the porridge are seri (water dropwart), suzuna (turnip), hakobera (chickweed), gogyou (cudweed), hotokenoza (nipplewort), nazuna (shepherd’s purse), and suzushiro (radish). There herbs are the first of spring and it is believed that the first herbs or vegetables of the season would be most nutritious and help strengthen the body.
The type of Japanese parsley or water dropwort used in the porridge is one of the few non-toxic variations so if you intend to try out this recipe, be wary of the type of water dropwort you use. The herbs used may be replaced by other herbs due to unavailability in other regions. Nowadays, it is pretty easy to find the herbs as they are also sold in packets in supermarkets which are usually labelled ‘Haru no Nanakusa’.
On the morning of the 7th day or the previous night, the wooden pestle, rice scoop and cutting board will be placed to face an auspicious direction. There are also chants accompanying the cutting of herbs which are traditionally “Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let’s get nanakusa” but there are also other variations.
The preparation is simple as you just need to add the herbs to the rice porridge and cook it together. You may buy a packet of herbs from the supermarket in Japan and try cooking it on your own! You can also try cooking the porridge with other herbs you have. Try it out at home or during your next New Year in Japan!