Clean-tasting, light, and nourishing, nanakusa-gayu is rice porridge made with seven herbs eaten on the 7th of January in Japan to refresh and soothe the digestive system after festive indulgences.

The soup has origins other than improving health, but also to celebrate the passing of seasons. At the end of the Jomon period (around 300 BCE), rice farming came to Japan via China, changing society from hunter-gatherer to agrarian. The practice of celebrating five seasonal changes in a year (gosekku) developed with this, as communities wished for a successful harvest season and the blessings of nature.

The first of these seasonal changes falls on the 7th of January, Jinjitsu (People’s Day), also known as nanakusa no sekku – festival of the seven herbs. On this day, store owners and farmers brought seven spring herbs to the Emperor, who would eat nanakusa-gayu in the Imperial Palace. The tradition of eating nanakusa-gayu spread from the Imperial Palace more widely during the following eras, and it’s now common to find packs of the herbs in supermarkets in the days leading up to the 7th of January.

The typical herbs used for nanakusagayu are seri (dropwort), nazuna (shepherd’s purse), gogyo (cudweed), hakobera (chickweed), hotokenoza (nipplewort), suzuna (turnip) and suzushiro (radish). However, these vary between regions, and can be tailored to what you have within reach. If you can’t find the traditional seven herbs, you can substitute them with others like coriander, chervil, dill, chives, mint, watercress.

Nanakusa-gayu (7 herb rice porridge)

90 g rice
600 ml cold water
1 small turnip
4cm daikon
2 large handfuls fresh herbs

The ratio of rice: water is about 1:7, but you can increase the proportion to 1:10 for a more liquidy broth.

1. To prepare the soup, rinse and drain the rice until the water runs clear. Add the rice to a saucepan with the cold water and set aside to soak for at least 30 minutes.

2. Place over medium-high heat and bring just to the boil, then reduce to the low for about 30 minutes, until the rice falls apart and the both becomes thick and soupy.

3. Slice the turnip and radish into thin, small pieces. Bring a pot of water with a teaspoon of salt to the boil and add the sliced turnip and radish. Cook until it softens enough to eat in the porridge, about 2-3 minutes. Remove, refresh with cold water and set aside.

4. Blanch the herbs in the boiling water and set aside. When cool, squeeze them lightly and chop coarsely, then squeeze again a little.

5. Stir the herbs to the rice broth and serve. If you like, you can add a sprinkle of sesame seeds and/ or umeboshi (pickled plum).