In pre-Meiji Era times, the Japanese celebrated a series of festivals on the first day of each lunar month. Each festival honored a particular animal (chicken, dog, boar, sheep, cow, horse and human) and it was forbidden to kill it on its special day. On Human Day, for example, executions were postponed. Later when Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, the festival was moved to the seventh day of January.
Nanakusa gayu, or Seven Herb Rice Soup, traditionally is eaten on Jinjitsu (Human Day) as a way to soothe the stomach that was sure to have overindulged in food and drink during the New Year’s festivities. Its name is derived from nana (sevedan), kusa (leaves) and gayu (rice soup). It’s similar to a brown rice and green tea porridge called “cha gayu” or Chinese congee. Its starchy rice base neutralizes stomach acids while the flavor is intentionally mild, infused with nutritional, aromatic greens. Please take care not to over-season it at the table with a dose of salty soy sauce as most uninitiated palates tend to do.
The seven herbs traditionally used can be found this time of year at your local Asian food market but if not, you can improvise with a combination of greens and mild root vegetables. It’s always better to use fresh, vibrant herbs over less potent plants that endured long transits, regardless of tradition. In Japan, when cooks prepare this soup, they use locally grown herbs that vary by region.
Nanakusa gayu Seven Herb Rice Soup
1 cup medium grain rice (Japanese rice) not sweet rice
6 cups water
1 cup mixed local greens*
pinch sea salt
Select seven fresh local herbs and greens such as:
*flat leaf parsley
Japanese greens typically used:
*daikon radish leaves (suzushiro)
*turnip leaves (suzuna)
*water dropwort (seri)
*shepherd’s purse (nazuna)
However, the Japanese select whatever local herbs and greens are in season.
Rinse greens well and chop. Set aside. Wash and rinse the rice. Place in a large, heavy bottomed pot and cover with fresh water. Soak for at least 30 minutes. Bring this to a boil then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 30-40 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent from sticking to the bottom. The mixture will be soft and creamy with some texture from the grains.
Add salt and greens. Stir to wilt the greens. Serve hot.