The more I study old Japanese customs, the more I am impressed by the logical thinking behind many of them, even when examined with modern eyes. One of these the custom of partaking of a bowl of nanakusagayu on the seventh day of the New Year, which supposedly started in the Heian Period (around the 12th century), in the refined court of Kyoto. Nanakusa means seven greens, and kayu (or to use the honorific term, okayu (お粥)), is rice porridge. The Imperial Court, now in Tokyo, still has a nanakusagayu ceremony on the morning of January 7th.
Okayu is the traditional thing to eat when you’re sick; it’s the Japanese equivalent of chicken soup in Jewish families. (At the time nanakusagayu was introduced, white rice was also a luxury food only available to the upper classes.) The nanakusa or seven greens are supposed to be medicinal, to help digestive system that is stuffed and exhausted after days of feasting to recover, as well as being harbingers of spring. Health and longevity in a bowl, in other words. Even if you examine this with modern eyes it still makes sense; white rice porridge is very easy to digest, and the dark greens add vitamins. Only salt is used to season the dish - no oils or other ingredients that may be too stimulating or heavy on the tired belly.
In Japan you can buy the seven traditional greens conveniently packaged together at any supermarket. The seven traditional greens are seri, nazuna, gogyou, hakobe, hotokenoza, suzuna, suzushiro. We had to memorize these in school as I recall - and I guess I still remember them! I’m sure they were used originally just because they grew in the Kyoto area in January. It’s a bit difficult to obtain all of these greens outside of Japan though. The last two may be not too bad, since suzuna is turnip greens (kabu no ha in modern standard Japanese) and suzushiro (daikon no ha) is daikon radish leaves. But you can really use any dark leafy greens that you can obtain locally. You don’t even have to have seven, though you may want to if you believe in lucky numbers. The combination that I have used here is:
All easy to get for me at the local markets or supermarkets here in Switzerland in early January.
You could use other greens such as:
Ideally you would eat this for breakfast on January 7th, but you could eat it on any cold winter day when you want to feel virtuous and warm inside and out.
Makes 4 servings
Since this is such a simple dish, make sure to use the best quality ingredients you can. The quality of the rice in particular is important, as is the rinsing and drying process. Use fresh greens and a salt that really tastes good.
Rinse the rice with several changes of water (see How to wash rice ) until the water runs clear. Drain the rice into a colander, and leave for at least 30 minutes to dry.
Wash the greens. If you are using any slightly bitter or tough greens like kale, collard greens, daikon radish leaves (not sprouts), turnip greens, puntarelle or cabbage, blanch them briefly in boiling water, drain and refresh under cold running water. Tender greens can be used as-is. Chop up all the greens. You should end up with about 1/4 cup of cooked greens or 1 cups of raw greens, or a mix of both.
Put the rice and the water in a heavy bottomed pan (traditionally you might use a donabe or earthenware pot, but I just use a cast iron enameled pot). Bring up to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer.
Cook, while stir up the rice from the bottom of the pan occasionally as it cooks, so that it doesn’t burn or stick, for about 40 minutes, until the rice porridge is creamy, like a loose risotto. Add 1 tsp. salt and stir. Just before serving, add the prepped greens and stir in well. Serve piping hot, with additional salt on the side that people can add to taste to their bowls.
If you just don’t have the time to be stirring a pot of rice porridge in the morning, you can prepare it the night before, but it won’t be nearly as good — it will become a bit gluey. Heat up with a little additional water, and add the greens to the hot porridge.
Your rice cooker may have a rice porridge or okayu setting; if so, follow their instructions. Add the greens to the hot porridge and stir in, and shut the rice cooker lid for a minute or two before serving.
As I mentioned, okayu, made with plain white rice, is still the go-to ‘when you’re sick’ meal for Japanese people. I still go for okayu myself when I am not feeling well. It comes in different rice to water ratios. Once, when I was 11 years old and home with a bad cold, I rebelled against the okayu my mother had made, and demanded she make me ‘butter rice’ - basically fried rice made with butter, a favorite dish of mine at the time. She made it for me, shaking her head, sure that I wouldn’t be able to eat it. Sure enough, as soon as I inhaled the smell of fried butter, I got sick and threw up. I haven’t really been able to eat ‘butter rice’ since.
When my little sister Meg was 5, she caught a summer cold that turned into a serious case of dehydration, and she ended up in the hospital for a month. For a while she was on an IV drip, and then they gradually introduced bland, easy to digest food, which all tasted awful. Horrible hospital food is a universal thing it seems. At the center of her meals was gosai no gobugayu, a standard hospital term for “five-part kayu (1 part rice to 5 parts water) for five year olds”. This rather gluey, faintly grey substance, which always arrived lukewarm, had no salt in it at all, and she hated it, though she made and effort to eat it since she was so hungry.
The little girl in the bed next to hers was there because of something non-digestive system related (a broken leg if I remember correctly), so she could eat anything she liked, including such fragrant meals such as curry rice and katsudon, that her mother would bring in from outside. How my sister would stare at her meals piteously, with tears in her eyes!
Meg became obsessed with food, and going to the bathroom. She couldn’t get the former, and had a terrible time with the latter because of a lack of fiber in her bland diet. She made everyone who visited her draw her pictures of her favorite foods. She also made us draw pictures of poo. It was rather funny to see the big sheets of paper around her bed, covered with little drawings of chocolate parfaits, ice cream boats, chicken legs and sushi rolls, juxtaposed with little curly mounds of poo, even a ‘poo necklace’ that my father had drawn for her.
(Later in life Meg trained to be a chef, and was a pastry chef at Toraya for a while. She’s now gone onto a different field entirely, but she, like the rest of our family, is still obsessed with food. And she’ll probably hate me for writing about her gosai no gobugayu summer on my blog!)