During Twixtmas – that weird time (and this year it seemed even weirder) between Christmas and New Year – I received a lovely festive greeting from one of my dear friends in Japan, Sachi Tanabe (@schtnb) who works at Ikor No Mori (@ikor_no_mori), a garden in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, in Japan.
Gardens and garden connections are so special. During 2020 and now, going forward into 2021, they are even more so. I met Sachi in 2018 at The Beth Chatto Symposium on Ecological Planting in the 21st century at the University of Essex.
Sachi knows of my love of herbs and recently we had talked about a Japanese recipe – Nanakusa Gayu – the seven herbs of spring. Sachi had included in the envelope a roll of washi tape with the seven herbs of spring as the motif.
She told me that the seven herbs were Japanese parsley, shepherd’s purse, cottonweed, chickweed, the foliage of white Japanese turnip, the foliage of daikon and greater henbit or Japanese nipplewort. These are all finely chopped and added to a rice soup or porridge.
In her card Sachi explained that the seven-herb porridge is eaten on 7 January and is a way to detox and rest the digestive system after all the festivities!
For more information on the origins of the custom and accompanying music and rituals check the Wikipedia reference for Nanakusa-no-sekku. It is not only useful for this early-in-the-year detox and cleanse but good fortune is also linked to it. As Sachi explained, the herbs were each chosen for their restorative properties.
“Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica) improves your appetite, shepherd’s purse was a popular herb back in the Edo period, cudweed prevents colds and helps relieve fevers, chickweed is full of vitamin A which is good for the eyes as well as curing stomach aches, nipplewort is full of fibre, turnips with vitamins and radish aids digestion and cold prevention. You have to respect the knowledge our ancestors had. A perfect way to starting a cleansed new year!”
I began to think about comfort food and the different staples that had played a part in my growing up. Rice and boiled chicken was always on offer in our house following any digestive upsets and as the household was half-Jewish, chicken soup was another time-honoured digestion and emotion restorer.
After the richness of festive meals, herbs and fresh greens are what I always need. So I decided to give the seven-herb rice dish a try. The timing of 7 January, which here is just after Twelfth Night and the customary putting away of the tree and all signs of Christmas, seems just right.
I knew that I couldn’t replicate the Japanese herbs in Sachi’s list so I turned to my garden and also took advice from the blog of a Japanese home cook, Nami.
Nami listed water dropwort, shepherd’s purse, cudweed, chickweed, nipplewort, turnip and daikon radish, but she also suggested substituting with fresh green herbs that were more easily to hand.
The seven herbs I used were fennel, chervil, chickweed (such a good feeling to pick and eat this hardy little weed!), watercress, coriander, chives and African blue basil.
The watercress and chives were from the supermarket but the others are all growing in my greenhouse, the garden or (chervil and coriander) in my new Vegepod (@vegepod_uk_ireland). Although my choice of herbs was dictated by what was available in the garden and from the supermarket, they fulfil the spirit of the seven-herbs of spring in that they aid digestion, have restorative properties and vitamin content.
I wonder what you are eating to refresh and restore your palate and digestion this year…