The festival of nanakusa-no-sekku 七草の節句, Seven Herb Festival, is celebrated today throughout Japan. On the seventh day of the first month, seven wild spring herbs are eaten in a rice porridge, called nanakusa-kayu 七草粥.
This custom dates back at least to the 6th century in China where it was recorded as one of the significant seasonal traditions in the Jingchu Suishiji, and is one of the five key seasonal traditions celebrated in Japan.
Traditionally, on the sixth day of the first month, people would go into the countryside and forage for seven medicinal herbs. On the morning of the seventh day, the herbs would be prepared whilst facing the direction that was deemed lucky for the coming year, and a spell would be recited for good health and longevity.
Although there are many regional variations on what seven herbs to use, the list has become somewhat standardised to include: seri 芹 (water dropwort), nazuna 薺 (shepherd’s purse), gogyō 御形 (cudweed), hakobera 繁縷 (chickweed), hotokenoza 仏の座 (nipplewort), suzuna 菘 (turnip), and suzushiro 蘿蔔 (daikon). At this time, packages of the seven herbs can be found prepacked in supermarkets. Buying the readymade packet of fresh herbs is probably better than foraging by yourself because without expert knowledge many of these early spring herbs can be mistaken for ones that are in fact highly toxic, such as seri which looks identical to the hemlock water dropwort but which is fatal if eaten!
Although these particular herbs are considered medicinal and therefore most appropriate for eating on this day, in fact, all herbs have some medicinal properties and therefore it really doesn’t matter which seven herbs you choose to mix into your okayu. Okayu is made by cooking one part rice to five parts water, cooked on a low heat for about 30 minutes and then left to rest for 10 minutes before adding the fresh herbs.
I hope you all enjoy a year of good health and good fortune 🙂
黄鶯睍睆, read as kōōkenkan or uguisunaku, “the uguisu sings”, is the second of the 72 micro-seasons. The uguisu is a Japanese bush warbler (often mistranslated as nightingale) that begins its beautiful courtship singing early in the spring, and when you hear the uguisu song for the first time, you pause and sigh, “Ah, spring is here!” The weather is still cold and leaves have yet to appear, but the buds are forming, fully of promise.
The seasonal plant is komatsuna 小松菜 (Brassica rapa var. perviridis), “Japanese mustard spinach.” Because this vegetable appears at about this time, it is also called uguisuna, “bush warbler spinach.”
Komatsu actually means small pine, but the name has nothing to do with pine trees. The name comes from the Komatsu River and a story about where it was first found growing and named. According to legend, in around 1719, after hunting in the area of Komatsu River, in Edogawa, the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune came to Shinkoiwa Katori Shrine, where he was served a delicious soup made with mochi and a fresh spicy spinach that grew locally. So delighted with the tangy soup, Yoshimune named the vegetable “komatsuna” and ordered the mustard greens to be sent to his home. This event is commemorated every New Year at the Shinkoiwa Katori Shrine, with visitors given bunches of komatsuna for good luck in the coming year.
Komatsuna is very nutritious, high in dietary fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. The mustard flavoured leaves can be eaten at any stage of growth, with the younger leaves a little less peppery than the older ones, and suited to being eaten raw in a salad. Komatsuna can be stir-fried, pickled, added to soup, or simply boiled or steamed, and is popularly paired with thick-cut aburaage.
Recipe: Komatsuna & aburaage tofu
Komatsuna 1 bunch, about 200g
Aburaage 1 sheet
Dashi (made with konbu and shiitake) 1/2 cup
Soy sauce 1 Tbsp
Mirin 1 Tbsp
Sugar 1 tsp
Mix together the dashi, soy, mirin and sugar and put into a saucepan.
Rinse the komatsuna thoroughly and chop into 3-4cm wide pieces, including the stalks.
Pour boiling water over the aburaage to remove the excess oil and then pat dry with a paper towel, then cut into 1cm strips.
Heat the broth until just simmering.
Add the komatsuna and aburaage to the broth, mix thoroughly and simmer for just 30 seconds, until heated through. Turn off the heat and serve immediately.
The wagashi (Japanese sweet) that is associated with this season is the very popular uguisumochi, which is also sometimes referred to as hatsune 初音, first song. As indicated in the name, uguisumochi is red bean paste encased in mochi; however, hatsune can also be made with gyūhi, a more refined mochi, mixed with white bean paste, which enables the shape and features of the bird to be molded.
東風解凍 is the first of the 72 micro seasons that divide the year in Japan. It can be read as “tōfū kōri wo toku” or “harukaze kōri wo toku”, and refers to the east wind that blows as the thick winter ice begins to melt.
Season 1, February 4-8, marks the beginning of Spring (risshun 立春), according to the traditional lunisolar almanac. Although the traditional lunisolar calendar was replaced in 1873, when the European Gregorian calendar was adopted in Japan, these 72 micro seasons are still observed in traditional pursuits such as cooking, gardening, poetry, and other aesthetic pursuits. These micro seasons reflect the subtle changes in nature and create an acute awareness of the passing of the year.
The first day of this season is ‘hatsu-uma’ 初午, which means the ‘first horse day’. Rather than seven days a week, the traditional calendar was in cycles of the twelve animals of the zodiac.
It is said that hatsu-uma was first celebrated in 711 to mark the day when the deity Inari Daijin comes down from Mt Inari to give a blessing for a successful rice crop. On this day, rituals for a bountiful rice harvest are held at the Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 in Kyoto, and people go there at that time to pray for good fortune generally.
There are several traditional dishes associated with this season, but the most popular dish, which is specific to hatsu-uma, rather than the whole of season 1, is inarizushi 稲荷寿司, which is popularly known as oinarisan おいなりさん. Inarizushi became popular in the Edo era because it was the cheapest type of sushi.
Abura-age is said to be the favourite food of the fox messenger of the god of the rice harvest, Inari Daijin 稲荷大神 (also known as Uka-no-Mitama 宇迦之御魂神), so that is how inarizushi got its name. In Kansai they prefer to fold the inarizushi into a triangular ‘mountain’ shape, whereas in Kanto region they made a rectangular ‘pillow’ shape.
Inarizushi is simply seasoned sushi rice mixed with various finely diced vegetables and stuffed into pockets made from abura-age 油揚げ, which is made by deep-frying thin slices of tofu. After frying, the abura-age is simmered in a broth seasoned with sugar and soy sauce to make a sweet-salty taste. Kyoto chef Satoshi Iida recommends that the balance should be more towards sweetness. He suggests adding ingredients such as carrot, gobo, shiitake, lotus root, kanpyo strips, etc., making sure to squeeze out any moisture before mixing into seasoned sushi rice. The ingredients should not be crunchy, so need to be well cooked. For the lotus root, if you soak it in amazake this will not only add a delicious taste but will also soften the root. The gobo should be first shaved and then simmered in a lightly seasoned broth until soft, then mashed. Fill the rice mixture into the tofu pockets, forming them into a triangular or pillow shape and serve with pickled ginger. In cold weather, these inarizushi can also be heated and served hot.
Inarizushi is often served with norimaki rolls in a combination called ‘sukeroku-zushi’ 助六寿司. The name comes from a character named Sukeroku from the eponymous kabuki play, Sukerokuyukari no Edozakura, whose lover is Agemaki 揚巻, a courtesan of Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Her name is “age” 揚 which means “fried” and “maki” 巻 meaning “nori roll”, so these two features were combined to create this set called sukeroku sushi. Sukeroku-zushi is a popular bento found at train stations and convenience stores.
Although the sukeroku-zushi bentos have nori rolls with crab, prawn and eggs, it is of course possible to make your own using any kind of vegetable and pickles.
飯田知史, 京料理 七十二候
Satoshi IIDA, Kyōryōri Shichi-jū-ni Kō [The Seventy-two Seasons of Kyoto Cuisine], 2008
This is a dish from Buddhist priest and shojin-ryori chef, Genbo Nishikawa, who is the abbot of Torin-in temple in Kyoto. This recipe is a seasonal dish that is enjoyed during late spring when fresh hijiki is available, but it works just fine if you use dried hijiki.
Hijiki no Inarizume
Ingredients (for full descriptions see “Ingredients“):
Momen tofu 120g
Yamato-imo (mountain potato) 30g
Hijiki seaweed 50g (reconstituted with water if dried hijiki is used)
Abura-age (tofu pockets) 4 pieces
Kanpyo 16 pieces 15cms long (calabash gourd shavings reconstituted with water)
Water 2 cups
Dashi stock 1/2 cup (made with konbu and shiitake)
Usukuchi shoyu 2+1/2 Tbsp
Sugar 3 Tbsp
1) Wrap the tofu in a cloth and squeeze firmly, then place the tofu in a suribachi (earthenware mortar for grinding).
2) Peel the yamato-imo, grate it and add it to the tofu. Mix well.
3) Chop up the hijiki and add it to the bowl with the yamato-imo and tofu. Mix lightly.
4) Using a wooden pestle or some such, roll over the abura-age several times, then cut the pieces in half lengthwise.
5) Divide the mixture in the bowl into 8 portions and stuff each of the tofu pockets. Secure by tying the kanpyo in two places. The yamato-imo tends to swell up, so don’t overstuff the pockets.
6) Place the cooking liquid ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Carefully arrange the rolls in the pot and simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes
7) Turn off the heat and place the rolls in individual serving dishes. Cut the rolls in half to serve.
Here is an extract from Kakuho Aoe‘s book “Food for the Buddha” about how to use soy beans to make dashi soup stock and practice meditation at the same time…
The kind of dashi that is most common to household cooking is the one made with konbu seaweed and bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi). Small dried sardines, called niboshi, and shiitake mushrooms are also used. In the temple, we don’t use any ingredients that come from animals, so katsuo-bushi and sardines are not used; however, we do use a variety of other ingredients and so never lack variation. One particularly useful ingredients for dashi is soy beans. Dashi made from soy beans has a full-bodied fragrant sweetness.
Fresh soy beans come into season in autumn, but because of the festival of Setsubun, you’ll find dried soy beans in the shops early in February. But once the festival is over, don’t waste those beans! Try and make dashi with them instead.
It’s easy to prepare. First of all, simply roast the beans in a frypan. Then put the roasted beans in boiling water and just leave them there for 24 hours. Then the soy bean dashi is ready to use – just sieve the beans and use the soaking liquid. Although that’s all there is to making this dashi, in fact if you pay careful attention with your eyes, with your ears, and with your nose, this can become quite a profound experience.
When you are roasting the soy beans, first you’ll hear a light dry sound. After a little while, this changes to a more substantial somewhat weightier sound as you hear the beans rolling around; then, before long, it changes back to a rather pleasing parching sound.
However, it’s not quite as simple as just “frying up a few soy beans”, so to speak: it depends on the room temperature, as well as the temperature of the pan; also, the age and quality of the beans will affect the result. But most of all, you need to use your ears! Looking at the clock won’t help: it’s crucial to listen for that subtle change in sound. It’s difficult to explain, but when you try it for yourself, you’ll understand what I mean. But if you pause too long to think about whether or not there was that slight shift in sound, before you know it the beans are burnt!
Also, between the start and finish of roasting, the smell of beans changes. The beans have a characteristic subtle scent that becomes very fragrant as they are roasted; however, if you relax your attention, the smell can become harsh and bitter instead, which is another sign that the beans are getting burnt. So, to create a rich and sweet dashi, it’s essential to concentrate on roasting the beans.
In order to listen fully with your ears and utilise your nose to track the smell of the beans, you need to pay close and constant attention to that frypan for about 30 minutes. To make soybean dashi, you’re literally going to use the whole of your body in an ongoing dialogue with the beans.
However, regardless of how much you pay attention and commit yourself heart and soul to the task, you won’t always end up with the same flavour. But that’s what makes the challenge of making this dashi is so interesting!
“You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future… do what needs to be done today with your full attention.”
If you think about how good something was yesterday, then that is nothing more than fixating on the past, and likewise, if today you hold onto the idea that it’s going to get better in the future, then you’re deluding yourself by being fixated on a future that hasn’t yet arrived.
And so it is when you first encounter the soy beans: be fully aware and with a clear mind simply observe carefull and work in silence. In doing this you will draw out the best flavour.
Now then, after you’ve made dashi with the soy beans, there are ways to further use them because there is still plenty of flavour left in the beans. I recommend “sweet and salty beans”. If you simmer the beans with sugar, soy sauce and mirin it makes a nice snack for the kids or to have with a drink or as an appetizer.
If you haven’t soaked or roasted the beans long enough, then they will remain hard in the middle and when you boil them like this they won’t soften. On the other hand, if you roasted them too much, then the burnt taste will permeate the dish and make it smell unpleasant as well, so that’s no good either. But if you have been fully attentive to the roasting the beans, then not only will the dashi be delicious but anything else you make will be delicious as well.