Written by Kevin Kilcoyne (@kevinjkilcoyne)
Cultures the world over have their own remedies for sour stomachs and the over indulgences of the holidays, but in Japan, the recovery meal of choice is nanakusa gayu(七草粥).
Following the feast of osechi ryori, it’s no wonder that one’s stomach needs a rest. It’s also no wonder that the go-to healing food is something as warm and comforting as a bowl of rice porridge. Eaten on January 7th, rich in vitamins and minerals, nanakusa gayuis a simple dish made by simmering pre-cooked rice and a blend of seven herbs: seri(water dropwort), nazuna(shepherd’s purse), gogyo(cudweed), hakobera(chickweed), hotokenoza(nipplewort), suzuna(turnip), suzushiro(daikon radish).
In our contemporary world of supermarkets and grocers, it’s hard to imagine a time when one didn’t have access to the bright, fresh colors of ripe fruits and vegetables year-round, but of course that time did in fact exist. It is from that by-gone era that the tradition of eating nanakusa gayu originated and has persisted to this day.
Derived from the name, which in fact means “seven spring herbs,” this dish is not only meant to heal ailing bellies, but also lend some brightness to the cold, bleakness of winter. The bright green herbs show what lays in wait just underneath the surface of the snow at a time when spring still seems so far away. What’s more, they reflect the life, vitality, and the enduring health one wishes for in the New Year.
While the actual origin of the tradition has been lost to time, it was the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo period (1603-1868) that established the tradition as one bound by legislation. Naming January 7th as the first of the five sekku(五節句), or five seasonal festivals, the shogunate mandated that the samurai were to eat nanakusa gayuon January 7th,or jinnjitsu sekku. It was also at this time that the shogunate established which seven specific herbs made up the nanakusa. From there, the tradition spread down to the masses and has been a part of New Year’s cuisine ever since.
Like many dishes and customs in Japanese cuisine, the simplicity of nanakusa gayu belies its deeper symbolism. Beyond representing the coming of spring and a prayer for health, each of the seven herbs in the porridgehas its own individual meaning.
Seri represents overcoming challenges, derived from the word serikatsu(競り勝つ), which means to win in spite of tough bidding or competition.
Nazuna symbolizes the gentle brushing away of the past year’s dirt, or nedete yogore wo nozoku (撫でて汚れを除く), which is what one’s stomach might be wishing for after the holiday indulgences.
Gogyou is an herb meant to represent the Buddha by way of a play on words as the name can also mean “honorable form.”
Hakobera stands for a prosperous year to come, stemming from the phrase hanei ga habikoru(繁栄がはびこる), which shares the same first kanji.
Hotokenoza is another herb meant to represent the Buddha, this time by way of the kanji, which roughly translate as “the Buddha quietly sitting cross-legged.”
Suzuna, the sixth of the seven herbs, represents yet another play on words, drawing from the first kanji in its name, in this case being a bell, or suzu(鈴), which is supposed to be the bell to call upon the gods.
Suzushiro, the final herb, is composed of kanji that yet again create a play on words, this time referring to a wish for cleanliness and purity in the New Year.
As we ring in the New Year with wishes for good health, it might just do us all some good to honor the hard work our bellies put in day-in and day-out and give them a rest and a reward. Reaching for something warm, nutritious, and easily digestible like nanakusa gayucould be the right move regardless of what our New Year’s resolution may be. And while the herbs used in nanakusa gayu are difficult to come by outside of Japan, there are plenty of other recipes that utilize more familiar and readily available herbs like cilantro, basil, and watercress. Either that, or there’s always the option to go freeze dried!
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.