By Avi Landau
Just when you thought we were through with all the traditional dishes. Just when you’ve decided that you’ve had more than enough of the soba, the O-zoni, and the O-sechi of O-shogatsu. Just when you find yourself daydreaming about dining at one of Tsukuba’s fine Italian, or French, or Chinese, or Korean restaurants which will be reopening after the long holiday. Just THEN, you realize that tomorrow is January 7th, time to eat the very traditional NANA KUSA GAYU 七草粥 (porridge with the seven herbs of spring) and head off to the supermarket to get ready.
The ancient Chinese believed that the first vegetables and herbs to sprout in the cold of late winter possessed strong doses of LIFE ENERGY, which could be transferred to humans if ingested. The 7th day of the first month (which is actually in February according to the old calendar) was the day on which the results of the official government examinations were announced in China. It was the custom for those waiting for their results to get up early in the morning and eat young herbs. They believed the energy obtained from these plants would help them to RISE UP IN THE WORLD. The reason the exams were announced on that day (the 7th), is that it was one the five important seasonal markers (sekku). This sekku was called Jinjitsu (人日), the day for divining a man’s future.
This custom was adopted, along with so many other things Chinese, by the aristocrats of the Heian Court (794-1185), though they changed the date to the 15th. They would gather young plants and put them into a soup (the actual herbs have varied over time and place). In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) instead of soup, the herbs were cooked in a rice porridge. The date was also changed back to the original Chinese one, the 7th. During the Edo Period (1600-1868), the shogunate recognized and promoted the traditional Chinese sekku, and the custom of eating porridge containing the seven herbs of spring filtered down to the general public. Of course, after the calendar was westernized, in 1873, the porridge came to be eaten on January 7th (which is now the 7th day of the first month).
It was traditional for the herbs to be picked on the 6th, and prepared on the evening of that day. There was a special song to be chanted while doing this. Translated, it goes something like “BEFORE THE BIRDS OF TANG CHINA FLY OVER JAPAN , WE PREPARE THE SEVEN HERBS”. This was done making as much noise as possible on the cutting board (to ritually chase away birds which damage crops).
It was also believed that the porridge soothed the stomach after all the eating and drinking of O-shogatsu, and got the people to eat their greens in a season when, before refrigeration, vegetables were a rarity.
Here are the herbs and their traditional benefits: Gogyo, good for urination; nazuna, good for tired eyes; seri, plenty of vitamins; suzushiro (radish flower), good for sore throats; suzuna, plenty of vitamins; otokenoza, a pain killer; and hakobera, good for the teeth! I’m really not sure what these plant names are in English, but it looks like I’ve got a radish and a turnip among my herbs.
Any supermarket will have nanakusagayu packs available. Their is a large variety, some containing fresh herbs and vegetables and others freeze dried. I recommend Seibu department store’s supermarket for the finest selection in Tsukuba.
If you need help just ask a clerk for a NANAGUSA GAYU PAKU.
The porridge should be eaten tomorrow morning! Have fun and bon appetit!