Nanagusagayu is a rice porridge dish traditionally eaten on the morning of January 7th. It features 7 kinds of spring herbs and is one of those culinary things that is more about culture and custom than taste — it tastes unremarkable. Still like most any bland dish, with some scrutiny and creativity, it has potential to be delicious while still celebrating tradition. Here is how I made mine.
nana (七): seven
kusa (草): lit. grass (herb)
(o)kayu (粥): rice porridge, also called zosui (雑炊)
＊o-kayu vs kayu: You will often see and hear ‘kayu’ called o-kayu in Japanese. ‘O’ is an honorific prefix that is often attached to important things in Japanese culture like o-cha (green tea), o-sake (sake), o-kome (rice), o-yu (hot water), o-mizu (water) to name just a very few.
＊The ‘k’ in kusa and kayu is pronounced as ‘g’, depending on the vowel it follows. This is called rendaku in Japanese.
History and Cultural Context
The tradition of eating Nanagusagayu began in the Heian period (794 to 1185), the same time when Kyoto was founded. The custom was likely limited to the aristocracy. As with many things a millennia or more old, its origins are obscure. The custom probably came from China, but in a different context. It is currently on one of the gosekku (五節句), Five Seasonal Festivals. This day is called Jinjitsu (人日), literally Human Day as the Chinese Goddess Nüwa is said to have created humans on this day. In more recent centuries it is thought that farmers, greengrocers and merchants popularized the custom among ordinary people who would eat it as an easy to digest and healthy meal after feasting during the New Year’s celebration while praying for a year of health. Naturally, the date was kept on the historically auspicious Human Day.
The Traditional Seven Herbs
seri (芹): water dropwort
nazuna (薺): shepherd’s purse
gogo (御形): cudweed
hakobera (繁縷): chickweed
hotokenoza (仏の座): nipplewort
suzuna (菘): turnip
suzushiro (蘿蔔): radish
Where to Get Your Seven Herbs?
While these ‘wild herbs’ are only used once a year, they are now mass-produced and available in supermarkets from about Jan 5. Every year I have regretted not making it. But, as it doesn’t look particularly appetizing, it wasn’t a priority for me. Still, it is a culinary cultural tradition, which does matter to me. And this year, when I saw the herbs for sale, I thought, I had better make it, now or never. So, I bought the best looking and biggest package of herbs and also a packet of the same herbs dried. (With some leftover rice I experimented with the dried herbs which seemed dubious to me. As I suspected, it was horrible, so bad that I ended up giving it to the dog — nanagusa dog food! Fortunately, Rainy isn’t a discriminating eater.) The ‘springy’ fresh herbs are very seasonally unique and seemed to have plenty of potential though.
How to Cook Nanagusagayu
I did some recipe research and found that nanagusagayu is remarkably unevolved. I suppose this comes from only making it once a year. The idea is to eat these seven wild, ’springy’ herbs and vegetables in a rice porridge on this special day, Jan 7th. I understand it is for health and longevity but the taste seemed just too basic. Couldn’t the tradition be honored and the taste be improved upon? Yes, I thought!
The problem with this dish is no umami (glutamic acid), no richness and no fat. Fixing the umami deficiency is easy, especially in Kyoto — just cook the rice in dashi (umami-rich cooking stock). Done. Now for richness. Many traditional recipes include egg. So, egg is in. I used three big fresh Japanese eggs with yolks so orange they are bordering on red. For some healthy fat, I decided to go with some rich winter fish sashimi: salmon and buri yellowtail. Of course, the sashimi would be served on the side but it has the desired effect in the overall meal.
How to treat the delicate herbs and vegetables? I watched a number of YouTube videos by noted Japanese chefs and popular Japanese foodie bloggers and was quite shocked to see that they all just chop them up, toss into boiling water, over-boil, squeeze out the water (not to mention flavor and nutrition too) in a clinched fist and then toss into the o-kayu. That is pretty rough — not much culture or appreciation for the ingredients in that!
My idea is that thin sliced, young vegetables and chopped early spring herbs are going to cook in just a few minutes right in the porridge and all the flavor and nutrition need not be lost boiling separately. So, I gently stirred the veggies into the o-kayu about five minutes from serving and the herbs about two minutes out. Perfect. Next was to quickly fold in the lightly whisked egg. My idea is that in the spirit of this dish, the veggies and herbs should be just barely cooked — al dente, not cooked to death as Japanese often do with veggies. This prep keeps the focus of the dish on the spry crunch and taste of the early spring herbs and veggies.
This bland tasting and looking dish really needs some garnish, for enhanced taste and fragrance and color. First, I used my red shiso pickled new ginger I made with the recipe I got from Michelin three star chef Tanigawa of Kichisen. (Some Japanese friends have objected to the saltiness of this but the great man himself, while visiting my humble kitchen, tasted it and pronounced it perfect.) I finely dice it and sprinkled it on. The color and saltiness really helped out the dish. Second is some citrus zest. With a microplane, I zested plenty of seasonal winter yuzu, Japan’s fabled citrus. This adds a great deal of fragrance, color and taste. The purple-red and vibrant yellow accent really ‘pop’ the dish for me. I squeezed on some yuzu juice too just before partaking. For additional garnish, I had considered adding baby scallions or chives, but that would really make it an eight herb o-kayu — can’t do that.
The Basic Steps
• Rinse and soak the rice, I use a 7-3 mixture of white rice or rice milled halfway between white rice and brown rice (70%) and ‘mugi’ pressed oats (30%). I let this soak in water for 30 to 60 minutes and then pour off the water and allow to drain in a colander for the same amount of time.
• Cooking the rice in dashi stock makes a world of difference. This is the fancy way to cook rice in Kyoto, especially nice for rice dishes such as mackerel sushi, steamed sushi, rice porridge and donburi where the dashi becomes a ‘hidden taste’. I use dashi packs which contain all natural ingredients in a teabag-like package but are quick and convenient. After adding the water, I just put 2 or 3 in the rice cooker, depending on the amount of rice.
• After the rice is done cooking, I am going to put it in a clay donabe cooking pot to make the actual o-kayu porridge — serving in a donabe looks really nice. Of course, a regular metal pot will do. More liquid and cooking time is needed to turn cooked rice into porridge. The liquid I used is sake, any cheap sake will do. Don’t use conventional cooking sake as it has salt added. To boil off the alcohol I cook it down to about half the original volume. I started with about 5 cups of sake this time. This is an old ‘hidden taste’ trick in Japan for making simmered vegetable and fish dishes taste amazing. A small amount of mirin and soy sauce could also be added to the o-kayu before cooking.
note: When making o-kayu, some people rinse the cooked rice while still hot, washing away a lot of starch making the final product more like soup.
• Wash and trim the beautiful seven spring herbs and vegetables. Take some nice pics and then slice the veg thin so it will cook quickly and chop the greens, not too fine though. Take some more pics. Lightly whisk three eggs.
• After transforming cooked rice into o-kayu, turn off the heat and let it cook for a few minutes. Gently fold in the veg, herbs and egg into the hot o-kayu. The residual heat is more than enough to quickly cook the ingredients. Again, I added veg about 5 minutes from intended serving time, herbs at 2 minutes and egg at about 1 minute.
• The salmon I seared with a torch, tataki-style and the buri served as is. On the side I prepared unpasteurized soy sauce and fresh grated wasabi which I spooned over the served sashimi.
• For an early-spring greens side-dish, I lightly steamed nanohana blossoms and served with homemade persimmon vinegar.
How Did Nanagusagayu Taste?
It was very good. I think I respected the spirit of the tradition, but within that context made a meal that actually tasted good, was healthy and importantly is a meal that could be enjoyed with family or friends on this special occasion. I think the traditional dish, a dull and conventional dish really, is unexamined ‘Zen-master food’. It is a nice tradition but leaves lots of room for development and improvement. This is my contribution to that process.