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What is ”Nanakusa-gayu,” which Japanese people eat after the New Year?

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

The Benefits of the ”Nanakusa(Seven Herbs of Spring) for Good Health

Do you know that Japanese people eat "Nanakusa-gayu" (rice gruel with seven spring herbs) on January 7th? "Nanakusa," the seven herbs of spring, are the young shoots of seven different plants that have sprouted in early spring when it is still cold. Nanakusa-gayu is an eventful meal in which the seven herbs of spring are mixed into easily digestible porridge, hoping that it will bring in the life energy of the young sprouts and allow the Japanese to live a healthy life year free from illness. This article will introduce the nutritious and healthy "Nanakusa-gayu" and the "seven spring herbs."

Table of Contents

1. What is Nanakusa-gayu? Why do the Japanese eat it?

2. Introduction to the Seven Herbs of Spring

3. How to make Nanakusa-gayu

4. Food of the region that does not eat Nanakusa-gayu

5. Summary

1. What is Nanakusa-gayu? Why do the Japanese eat it?

The "Nanakusa; seven herbs of spring" are the seven species that sprout in early spring: Seri, Nazuna, Gogyo, Hakobera, Hotokenenoza, Suzuna, and Suzushiro. The porridge eaten on January 7th with the seven spring herbs is called "Nanakusa-gayu." In Japan, it is said that there are five "Sekku" (seasonal rites) in a year, and the first Sekku of the New Year falls on January 7th.

Since ancient times, there has been a custom in Japan to prepare special meals for Sekku to wish for a good harvest and good health, and Nanakusa-gayu is one of them. At this time in Japan, the New Year's mood starts to calm down as the seven herbs of spring appear in sets at supermarkets.

The custom of eating Nanakusa-gayu has taken root in the Edo period (1603-1868). Since January 7th is the last day of the New Year's period called "Matsu-no-uchi," people began to eat porridge, which is gentle on the stomach, to rest their tired stomachs after days of New Year feasts. Each of the seven spring herbs has its benefits, and from this point of view, Nanakusa-gayu, which we eat to wish good health, makes sense as an event food. There is no specific time to eat it, but we usually eat it for breakfast.

2. Introduction to the Seven Herbs of Spring

The "Seven Herbs of Spring" are all plants that sprout in early spring, and their young green shoots let us know that spring is not far away. They are all plants that are familiar to Japanese people. Even today, aside from big cities, in rural areas where rice fields are spread out, you can find some of these plants growing wild along the roadsides.

The seven herbs are effective in increasing appetite, diuretic, relieving hangovers, antipyretic, expectorant, cough suppressant, and preventing skin rashes. It is the perfect food to eat after New Year's when people tend to overeat and drink heavily, and in winter, they tend to catch colds.

1) Seri(Japanese parsley): A perennial herb of the parsley family that grows wild in the mountains and fields throughout Japan. Its name is derived from its growth in a "seri=competitive" manner. Its name comes from growing like a "seri-katsu" (compete and win) and is therefore associated with good luck. It has a unique aroma that stimulates the appetite, and it also has a beneficial effect on the stomach and intestines. It is also delicious as a salad or as a boiled dish.

2) Hotokenoza(=buddha's seat): A perennial plant in the Chrysanthemum family. The name "buddha's seat" suggests that it is auspicious. It has a bitter taste, so after boiling in salted water, you should soak it in running water before cooking. We also eat it as a tsukudani (food cooked in soy sauce and Japanese pepper) or tempura. It is said to have stomachic and intestinal effects.

3) Gogyo: A perennial herb of the Chrysanthemum family, also known as bald cypress. The name "Gogyo" means "divine body or Buddha image. Some people drink it as tea, and it is said to reduce throat inflammation and prevent swelling.

4)Nazuna: It is also known as "pen pen-kusa" (penpen= the sound of the strings being struck) because it bears fruits shaped like the plectrum of a shamisen, or three-stringed Japanese banjo. It has been used as a medicinal herb in folk medicine since ancient times and is believed to reduce fever, relieve constipation, and stop bleeding.

5) Hakobera: A perennial herb of the Rhododendron family, also known as hackberry. It has been used as a diuretic, hemostatic, and analgesic and a preventive against gum disease. The Chinese character spelling means "prosperity."

6) Suzushiro: Some of you may know it as Daikon. It is a miniature size that has not grown large. The name "Suzushiro" means purity and innocence. The white root part of the plant contains a large amount of diastase, a substance that promotes the digestion of food. Like Suzuna, the leaves are rich in vitamin C and minerals.

7) Suzuna: A member of the Brassicaceae family, the official name is Kabu or turnip. The round shape of the root resembles a bell (which is rung to call the gods) and has been used as a lucky charm. It is said to be effective in regulating the condition of the stomach and intestines.

3. How to make Nanakusa-gayu

Going back in history, the preparation for Nanakusa-gayu started on the night before January 7th. There were detailed rules such as the number of times to chop the seven herbs, the tools to be used at that time, the direction to go, and a spell-like song. Making Nanakusa-gayu itself was a ritual to pray for good health throughout the year. This time, I would like to introduce a recipe for adding chopped seven herbs to a simple white rice gruel.

<Ingredients: enough for 2 or 3 servings>

180g rice

900ml water

An appropriate amount of seven spring herbs

A pinch of salt

1) Polish the rice, put it in an earthenware pot with 900 ml of water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30-40 minutes. If you don't have an earthenware pot, you can use a thick pot with a lid instead.

2) Finely chop the seven herbs.

3) When the rice is cooked to the core and has absorbed enough water to become soft, quickly mix in a pinch of salt and the chopped seven herbs, and turn off the heat.

*If you feel the rice is about to spill, move the lid of the earthenware pot to allow the steam to escape.

4. Food of the region that does not eat Nanakusa-gayu

(Natto-jiru: Image provided by: Yamagata's PR Photo Library: )

In some regions, people do not eat Nanakusa-gayu on January 7th. In areas such as the Tohoku region and the mountainous regions in Nagano Prefecture, preparing the seven herbs in early spring is not possible due to the cold weather. During the seven herbs season in spring, people eat porridge or soup with burdock root, radish, and dried fish available in winter to pray for good health for the year.

In Yamagata Prefecture, there is a custom of eating "Natto (fermented soybeans) -jiru" (photo) on January 7th. Natto is a fermented soybean characterized by its distinctive smell and string-like stickiness. It is made by fermenting well-steamed soybeans with fermented soybean bacillus. It is one of the most traditional and nutritious foods in Japanese breakfast. The smell and stickiness of Natto can divide even Japanese people into different likes and dislikes, but it is something you should try.

Natto-jiru in Yamagata Prefecture is characterized by the Natto being ground well in a bowl until the grains are no longer visible and thickened. Konnyaku, burdock root, fried tofu, etc., are added to the soup, and the mashed Natto paste is added to thicken it. Many families have eaten it as a warming soup in the cold winter.

When boiled soybeans are packed in a container made of straw and left in a warm place such as next to a kotatsu (a Japanese table with a heater) for one or two nights, the fermentation of the fermented soybeans naturally takes place on the straw, and sticky Natto is produced. In Yamagata Prefecture, where the weather is frigid, many families have been making nutritious fermented soybeans at home since ancient times as a way of preserving food to get through the winter, when ingredients are often scarce.

In some parts of Kyushu, where the climate is mild, it is customary to eat Nanakusa-jiru, a miso-based soup with seven herbs, yellowtail, or meat. In some parts of Shikoku, the seven herbs are lightly boiled and soaked in soy sauce to savor the freshness of spring.

(Photo: "Natto rice," rice topped with Natto, is popular for breakfast)

5. Summary

"Nanakusa in spring," which is believed to have various benefits, can be regarded as unique Japanese-style herbs. Nanakusa-gayu (rice porridge with seven herbs), which contains health-promoting nutrients, is perfect for Japanese people who have overeaten during the New Year holidays. The contrast between the fresh green color of the seven herbs and the white color of the porridge is brilliant to the eyes. The rice porridge is prepared simply with only a little salt, which is refreshing and flavorful at a time of the year when we have had many richly seasoned Osechi.

Nanakusa-gayu, a traditional Japanese dish that has been handed down for a long time, is filled with the wisdom of our ancestors who knew that the seven herbs that grow naturally around us contain nutrients that are good for our health.

 Do you have this kind of food in your country?

 The wish for a healthy year is universal!

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