Today is the Festival of Seven Herbs or Nanakusa no sekku (Japanese: 七草の節句), the long-standing Japanese custom of eating seven-herb rice porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7 (Jinjitsu). “Herbs” in this context means greens, some of which are regular green vegetables and some of which are herbs in the West. This reminds me of the fact that until relatively recently all greens were called “herbs” in England. So a salad could be made of lettuce, spinach, sage, thyme, and so forth, and they were all “herbs.” The greens would then be dressed with oil and vinegar. The notion of using greens in the salad and then dressing with a vinaigrette with the herbs in it is a modern idea. You should try using lettuce, spinach, fresh basil, fresh mint, and so forth in the salad bowl and then adding oil and vinegar. It is much fresher than the conventional salad.
The nanakusa are the seven edible wild herbs of spring. Traditionally, they are
Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica)
Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Cudweed (Gnaphalium affine)
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Nipplewort (Lapsana apogonoides)
Turnip greens (Brassica rapa)
Daikon greens (Raphanus sativus)
But there is considerable variation in the precise ingredients, with common local herbs often being substituted.
On the morning of January 7, or the night before, people place the nanakusa, rice scoop, and/or wooden pestle on the cutting board and, facing the good-luck direction, chant — “Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let’s get nanakusa” while cutting the herbs into pieces. The chant may vary.
The seventh of the first month has been an important Japanese festival since ancient times. The custom of eating nanakusa-gayu on this day, to bring longevity and health, developed in Japan from a similar ancient Chinese custom, intended to ward off evil. Since there is little green at that time of the year, the young green herbs bring color to the table and eating them suits the spirit of the New Year.
Nanakusa-gayu, and rice porridge in general, is not to my taste. It is quite common in China but not especially where I live. I find it too bland. I’ll eat it if given to me, but won’t eat it by choice. Preparation is simple. First you make a stock. For nanakusa-gayu make it by steeping konbu in water overnight. Konbu is a seaweed easily obtainable from Asian stores. Discard the seaweed and add some steamed Japanese rice to the broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the grains are really soft. Then add your chopped greens and cook for 5 minutes or so, and serve in bowls. For Westerners it would not be terribly sacrilegious to use whatever greens you can get hold of. But you should use some kind of fish or seaweed stock.