I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
Thus winter in Japan became a season for exploration, for travels to snow-blanketed hamlets and unseen corners of the country. This feeling of being at peace with the past and hopeful for the future was surely heightened by the delight of discovering new traditions, not to mention new foods and sensory delights, at every turn. Yet there was also something beyond the thrill of the new that gave January its charm. Perhaps it was the sense that, when the celebrations are over, all we really hold, indeed all that really matters, are a few things. Japan’s enduring New Year’s traditions – watching the sun rise on January 1st, enjoying a bounty of auspicious foods the evening before, time well spent with family and friends – remind us that each new year is not really a beginning, but rather an opportunity to gain perspective on the fortunes and follies of prior years. When the indulgences of the holiday season have passed, there’s true pleasure to be found in re-centering, focusing not on resolutions and goals and “fresh starts” but on gaining wisdom for the coming year.
Yet there’s another Japanese New Year’s tradition, far less elborate than the colorful osechi ryōri consumed on New Year’s Eve, that is worth sharing and savoring. On the morning of January 7, people all across Japan partake in nanakusa gayu (七草がゆ / 七草粥 ), or “seven herb rice porridge.” In this dish, creamy, overcooked rice is flecked with bits of bitter greens such as radish tops, turnip leaves, and chickweed. Flavored with only salt and perhaps umeboshi on the side, nanakusa gayu is thought to soothe stomachs weary from overindulgence and bring good health for the new year. (The basis for the dish, okayu, is often given to the sick and ailing, as overcooked rice is thought to be more easily digestible.)
This year, hungry for Japanese-style comfort after a holiday season of buttery treats, I decided to try my hand at this simple dish. (My trusty Japanese rice cooker had a setting for okayu, which makes the whole thing almost too easy.) In Japan, supermarkets sell prepackaged sets of nanakusa greens, but I picked up whatever was fresh at Sunrise and the farmer’s market. Of the seven traditional greens, I was only able to find suzuna (turnip leaves), which I mixed with mitsuba, frilly mustard greens, two kinds of juicy tatsoi, peppery arugula, and mizuna. Luckily, all seven worked beautifully together – hopefully a sign of good things to come this year.
Nanakusa Gayu - 七草がゆ
(Seven Herb Rice Porridge)
Adapted from sirogohan.com
This makes a rather soft porridge, but if you prefer one with a little more bite, reduce the water by a cup or so, for a rice-water ratio of 1 : 7. For a really soft texture, use a ratio of about 1 : 10. You can also bulk up the recipe by stirring in a bit of beaten egg before serving.
1 cup (8 oz / 223 g) Japanese rice
8 cups (500 ml) water
About 1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Assorted seasonal greens (seven types if you want to be traditional, or come up with your own combination), finely chopped
Umeboshi or other pickles, optional
Give the rice a quick rinse and place in a large saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir; lower the heat and simmer with the lid ajar for about 15 minutes. Stir the mixture gently with a wooden spoon, scooping any rice up from the bottom of the pan to prevent it from sticking.
Continue cooking for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the porridge has thickened and the liquid is partially absorbed. Season with salt and stir in the greens, which will wilt almost immediately. Serve with umeboshi or other pickles, if desired.