Nanakusa no Sekku

Last week was Nanakusa no Sekku, the festival of the seven herbs in Japan, that marks the end of Oshugatsu, the Japanese New Year. On this day – typically in the morning Japanese – people eat Nanakusa Gayu. This is a variation of rice porridge called okayu that is typically served to sick people, because it is soft and rather bland. With my youngest daughter being less than a year old and an addict to Japanese food, I found myself making okayu quite often in the past months and I must admit that it ranks rather low in my Japanese culinary repertoire.

Nevertheless Nanakusa Gayu is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the new year as a simple soup made with rice and water (proportion 1:3), or a light dashi broth and seven different kinds of herbs (each having a unique health promoting property) that are quickly blanched and then finely chopped to be added at the end. The soup is meant to let the “overworked” stomach and digestive system rest and bring longevity and health in the coming year.

Traditional Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
Traditional Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs

The traditional seven herbs that are added to the dish are:
– seri — Water Dropwort
– nazuna — Shepherd’s Purse
– gogyō — Cudweed
– hakobera — Chickweed
– hotokenoza — Nipplewort
– suzuna — Turnip
– suzushiro — Daikon

Freeze-dried Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
Freeze-dried Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs

In Japan it is easy to source those herbs both fresh and freeze dried in conveniently packaged containers.

So instead of preparing my family food, which only my youngest daughter would appreciate, I gave it a little twist this year. I combined Nanakusa no Sekku with Sho-Chiku-Bai (pine, bamboo and plum). This threesome – “Three Friends of Winter” is one of the most popular decorative motifs (e.g. the motive on New Year’s chopsticks), representing promise and good fortune.

So I cooked the Japanese rice risotto style: Deglazing the pan with saké and adding the broth little by little while continuously stirring to bring out the creaminess. As a broth I used the liquid from braising bamboo shoots like you would when making Takénoko Gohan. And which were tossed under the rice just before serving. I added pine nuts to the herbs making a raw pesto-like paste to go on top of the rice and added a sprinkle of dried umé boshi powder on top of the dish (hard to see in the picture) to add a splash of color and palate teaser.

Our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa Gayu
Our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa Gayu

This variation of Nanakusa no Sekku was a successful experiment. Even my youngest daughter liked the rice. As she is still waiting for her first tooth to come out, there was not much more for her to try. Here is the recipe that I noted while I was cooking:

For the broth :
– 1.100 ml Dashi
–    100 ml Mirin
–    100 ml light colored soy sauce
–    450g     cooked Bamboo
–        2        Turnip
–        2        Mini-Daikon

Put dashi, mirin and soy sauce in a pot on medium heat. Add the thinly cut vegetables, cover with an otoshi buta (or alternatively with a round parchment paper) and allow for low simmering for about five minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Remove the vegetables from the soup and save for their later use.

For the Pesto*:
– 2 packages of Nanakusa no Sekku-herbs
–  70 g freshly roasted  pine nuts
– 100 ml broth
– 15 ml light colored soy sauce
– 1 pinch of salt (optional)

Mix the pine nuts and half of the broth in a blender. Add the rest of the broth bit by bit – depending on your preferred consistency. Proceed similar with the light colored soy sauce, adjusting the degree of saltiness to your liking. Light colored soy sauce is saltier than normal soy sauce, but does not stain the food. So if you substitute regular soy sauce for the light colored soy sauce, beware that it will affect the fresh, green color.

For the rice:
– 275 g    Japanese rice
– 100 ml Saké
– 750 ml broth
– 1 El        light sesame oil
– 1 Prise  Umé boshi powder

Heat the oil in the pot and add the rice, stirring it for one or two minutes until coated with the oil. Deglaze the pot with the saké and add the broth little by little. For a creamy consistency you need to stir constantly, massaging the broth into the rice until it has reached your favorite doneness (mine was al dente).

Before serving mix the cooked vegetables** in the rice and arrange it nicely on a plate. Top with the pesto and sprinkle some umé boshi powder over the dish .

We enjoyed our Sho-Chiku-Bai Nanakusa no Sekku with a glass of chilled Junmai Kimoto Saké from the Daishichi brewery, which I will be introducing in more detail in a separate post.


* The amount of pesto that I got was good for six people, whereas the rice  was for two adults, two little girls and a baby only. Next time I will cut the recipe in half.

** I used way too much bamboo for the dish. The bamboo flavored the broth nicely, but was too much to mix with the rice that I cooked. I assume that 150 g bamboo would probably have been more than enough.

Jubako Plating Plan

Some Jubakos have dividers – either flexible ones or fixed but many come without giving the most plating options. Jubakos are carefully filled, pleasing the eye as much as the food the palate. Not surprisingly those pieces of artistic arranged osechi are carefully planned upfront. Color combinations are in taken into account as much as consistency and shapes. Good practice is to do the design on paper before the filling. Here is the plan my daughter came up with yesterday for arranging osechi in her own Jubako for the next New Years Day:

My daughter's Jubako plating plan for next New Year’s Day.
My daughter’s Jubako plating plan for next New Year’s Day.

In her box she wants to include

– top: Tamagoyaki (rolled omelet)
– second from the top: Kuromamé (sweet, black soy beans)
– third from the top: Cucumbers
bottom: Onigiri (hand pressed rice) with yukari (dried red shiso leaves)

– top: Tori Niku Dango (chicken meatballs)
– second from the top: Tazukuri (candied sardines)
– 3rd and 4th compartment: Some decoration
– second from the bottom: Tataki gobo (pounded Burdock)
– bottom: Cherry tomatoes and
– next to the tomatoes: Edamamé (green soy beans).

Interestingly she has the Washoku color concept already internalized adding all five colors in her box:
– yellow with the tamagoyaki (rolled omelet),
– red with the tomatoes and the yukari
– green with the edamamé and the cucumber
– white with the rice and
– black with the kuromamé .

If you are not yet familiar with Washoku, stay tuned or subscribe to the newsletter. I will be writing about it in more detail shortly.

New Year’s Food in Japan

The turn oft the year is one of the most important holidays for families in Japan – like Christmas in Europe people go home and celebrate the turn of the years with their families. It is the time to reflect on the past year and for a fresh start into the new one. Debts are paid off and arguments are settled before the old year ends. The house gets a good clean and osechi ryori dishes are prepared before the year ends.

Jubako filled with home made osechi after sensei Elizabeth Andoh’s osechi workshop
Two Jubako layers filled with home made osechi after sensei Elizabeth Andoh’s osechi workshop

Osechi ryori (often shortened to ‘osechi’) is a subset of Japanese cuisine. An assortment of traditional dishes – each of which has a symbolic character – are served on Oshogatsu (New Year’s). As historically New Year’s day was not the time for cooking, osechi are made ahead of time, kept and eaten at room temperature. The dishes are therefore typically prepared based on ancient methods of preserving food, like curing with salt or vinegar and simmering in sweetened soy. Some of the traditional dishes are:

Tataki Gobo (pounded Burdock with sesame):
Gobo, or Burdock is a long root vegetable that symbolizes a long and stable life. When splitting the ends of gobo, like you do in this dish, it is believed that the good fortune is multiplied.

Tazukuri (candied sardines):
With the large number of tiny fish Tazukuri symbolizes a bountiful harvest as they were once used as fertilizer. Combining tiny dried sardines with a sweet coating might seem extraordinary, but they are utterly delicious.

Kohaku Namasu (red and white salad):
Typically made from daikon and carrot, this is a recurring color combination in osechi dishes, as red and white stands for happiness and celebration in Japan.

Kurikinton (creamy sweet potatoes with chestnuts):
This is a sweet, bright yellow (golden) dish that is included in the jubako to symbolize wealth and financial success.

Kurumamé (Sweet Black Soy Beans):
Those black soy beans are simmered in thick syrup – and sometimes patiently served as a couple on tiny skewers. It’s thought to have medicinal values and is a symbol of good health.

Hering Roe at my local fish monger a day before New Years.
Herring roe at my local fish monger a day before New Years.


Kazunoko (herring roe):
The roe is being cured in a light soy sauce and dashi and symbolize fertility because of the many tiny eggs.




Kohaku Kamaboko (Red and white Celebration Fish Sausage):
Rarely homemade but store-bought, Kohaku kamaboko, like Kohaku Namasu it is a traditional dish representing happiness and celebration.

Kohaku Kamaboko for sale at my local fish monger
Kohaku Kamaboko for sale at my local fish monger
Kohaku Kamaboko in its typical alternate plating
Kohaku Kamaboko in its typical alternate plating

Daté Maki Tamago (Omlet with Fish):

The golden dish symbolizes a wish for sunny days ahead. For some people it symbolizes knowledge because the rolled shape looks like a scroll. Like Kohaku Kamaboko it is nowadays rarely made at home, as a special omelet pan is necessary that is made of copper and not the everyday Teflon omelet pans.

Plated Daté Maki Tamago
Plated Daté Maki Tamago

On New Year’s day the osechi dishes are then carefully arranged in a two to three layered lacquer box, called jubako. Today ready made osechi boxes can be ordered ahead of time at ordinary supermarkets, depachikas (basement food area in Japanese department stores that carry a wide range of Japanese and international delicatessen) or restaurants. The number of zeros in the catalogue are not a mistake – prices for osechi boxes are usually a couple hundred Euros and can go up to several thousand – depending obviously on the number of persons and the prestige of the chef or producer.

Osechi-ryori boxes in Takashimaya’s 2015 catalogue, an upscale Japanese Department Store
Osechi-ryori boxes in Takashimaya’s 2015 catalogue, an upscale Japanese Department Store