Lucky Seven

6 Jan

Hi blog.

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for several years now, but I always miss the season.   My wife and her family don’t follow this particular custom, so I can’t personally relate to it.  In fact, I only heard about it a few years ago (on the TV news, no less).

The custom I’m referring to is making and eating rice gruel / rice porridge using the “seven herbs of spring” and eating it on January 7th.  The word “herb” needs to be used in its widest nuance, since the Japanese word is “kusa”(草 or 種), literally “grass”.  This word covers grasses, herbs, vegetables and even flowers.  (Most Japanese are blissfully unaware of this, and will gladly talk about eating grass, when in fact they mean wild vegetables!)

Anyway, the “seven herbs of spring” – haru-no-nanakusa (春の七草) – are boiled together with rice to make a gruel dish known as nanakusa gayu.  The number seven is derived from Chinese cosmology – there are seven “herbs” for summer and autumn too, and the seven gods of good fortune make their appearance at this time of year.

There is a song for recalling the ingredients.  The traditional names for the seven herbs are archaic, and some differ from modern names.  Also, there are regional variations for both the ingredients and the exact date for the dish to be made.  The accompanying chant for chopping the herbs is also subject to regional variation.

I’m not big on folk songs, so I’m not 100% sorry that we don’t carry out this custom at home.

Anyway, here is a rundown of the seven herbs of spring:

Traditional name Modern name notes
   seri (芹)  same  Oenanthe javanica, or Java Dropwort.  Not to be confused with the similar-looking but poisonous Mackenzie’s Water Hemlock.
   nazuna (薺)  same or sometimes penpenkusa  Capsella bursa-pastoris, shepherd’s purse.
   gogyo (御形)  hahakogusa (母子草)  Jersey cudweed, Gnaphalium affine.  
   hakobera (繁縷)  hakobe (蘩蔞)  Chickweeds of the genus Stellaria.  Long used in folk medicine.
   hotokenoza (仏の座) koonitabirako (小鬼田平子)  Nipplewort Lapsana apogonoides.  Not to be confused with henbit dead-nettle (Lamium amplexicaule), which is also known as hotokenoza.
  suzuna (菘) kabu (蕪) This is a turnip.  Only the leaves are used for the gruel.
   suzushiro (蘿蔔)  diakon (大根)  Giant Chinese radish.  Only the leaves are used in the gruel.

*All the above photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

I’ve even seen the seven herbs sold together as a set for making the gruel.  Maybe one day I’ll try making it, but on a cold winter day I’d rather have a big curry!

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