Nanakusagayu: Seven greens rice porridge to rest the feast-weary belly


The more I study old Japanese customs, the more I am impressed by the logical thinking behind many of them, even when examined with modern eyes. One of these the custom of partaking of a bowl of nanakusagayu on the seventh day of the New Year, which supposedly started in the Heian Period (around the 12th century), in the refined court of Kyoto. Nanakusa means seven greens, and kayu (or to use the honorific term, okayu (お粥)), is rice porridge. The Imperial Court, now in Tokyo, still has a nanakusagayu ceremony on the morning of January 7th.

Okayu is the traditional thing to eat when you're sick; it's the Japanese equivalent of chicken soup in Jewish families. (At the time nanakusagayu was introduced, white rice was also a luxury food only available to the upper classes.) The nanakusa or seven greens are supposed to be medicinal, to help digestive system that is stuffed and exhausted after days of feasting to recover, as well as being harbingers of spring. Health and longevity in a bowl, in other words. Even if you examine this with modern eyes it still makes sense; white rice porridge is very easy to digest, and the dark greens add vitamins. Only salt is used to season the dish - no oils or other ingredients that may be too stimulating or heavy on the tired belly.

In Japan you can buy the seven traditional greens conveniently packaged together at any supermarket. The seven traditional greens are seri, nazuna, gogyou, hakobe, hotokenoza, suzuna, suzushiro. We had to memorize these in school as I recall - and I guess I still remember them! I'm sure they were used originally just because they grew in the Kyoto area in January. It's a bit difficult to obtain all of these greens outside of Japan though. The last two may be not too bad, since suzuna is turnip greens (kabu no ha in modern standard Japanese) and suzushiro (daikon no ha) is daikon radish leaves. But you can really use any dark leafy greens that you can obtain locally. You don't even have to have seven, though you may want to if you believe in lucky numbers. The combination that I have used here is:

  • Flat leaf parsley leaves
  • Baby spinach leaves
  • Mache or lamb's lettuce (Nüsslisalat in Swiss-German)
  • Arugula (rucola/rocket) leaves
  • Daikon radish sprouts
  • Swiss chard leaves
  • Dark green kale

All easy to get for me at the local markets or supermarkets here in Switzerland in early January.

You could use other greens such as:

  • Turnip greens
  • Collard greens
  • Beet greens (the red parts add a bit of color)
  • Dark green cabbage
  • Komatsuna
  • Sprouting broccoli leaves
  • Dandelion leaves

Ideally you would eat this for breakfast on January 7th, but you could eat it on any cold winter day when you want to feel virtuous and warm inside and out.

Recipe: Nanakusagayu using local greens

Makes 4 servings

Since this is such a simple dish, make sure to use the best quality ingredients you can. The quality of the rice in particular is important, as is the rinsing and drying process. Use fresh greens and a salt that really tastes good.

  • 1 cup white medium grain or Japanese style rice (see Looking at Rice).
  • Mixed dark leafy greens
  • 8 cups water
  • Sea salt, to taste

Rinse the rice with several changes of water (see How to wash rice) until the water runs clear. Drain the rice into a colander, and leave for at least 30 minutes to dry.

Wash the greens. If you are using any slightly bitter or tough greens like kale, collard greens, daikon radish leaves (not sprouts), turnip greens, puntarelle or cabbage, blanch them briefly in boiling water, drain and refresh under cold running water. Tender greens can be used as-is. Chop up all the greens. You should end up with about 1/4 cup of cooked greens or 1 cups of raw greens, or a mix of both.

Put the rice and the water in a heavy bottomed pan (traditionally you might use a donabe or earthenware pot, but I just use a cast iron enameled pot). Bring up to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer.

Cook, while stir up the rice from the bottom of the pan occasionally as it cooks, so that it doesn't burn or stick, for about 40 minutes, until the rice porridge is creamy, like a loose risotto. Add 1 tsp. salt and stir. Just before serving, add the prepped greens and stir in well. Serve piping hot, with additional salt on the side that people can add to taste to their bowls.

Ahead-of-time note

If you just don't have the time to be stirring a pot of rice porridge in the morning, you can prepare it the night before, but it won't be nearly as good -- it will become a bit gluey. Heat up with a little additional water, and add the greens to the hot porridge.

Your rice cooker may have a rice porridge or okayu setting; if so, follow their instructions. Add the greens to the hot porridge and stir in, and shut the rice cooker lid for a minute or two before serving.

Tales of okayu

As I mentioned, okayu, made with plain white rice, is still the go-to 'when you're sick' meal for Japanese people. I still go for okayu myself when I am not feeling well. It comes in different rice to water ratios. Once, when I was 11 years old and home with a bad cold, I rebelled against the okayu my mother had made, and demanded she make me 'butter rice' - basically fried rice made with butter, a favorite dish of mine at the time. She made it for me, shaking her head, sure that I wouldn't be able to eat it. Sure enough, as soon as I inhaled the smell of fried butter, I got sick and threw up. I haven't really been able to eat 'butter rice' since.

When my little sister Meg was 5, she caught a summer cold that turned into a serious case of dehydration, and she ended up in the hospital for a month. For a while she was on an IV drip, and then they gradually introduced bland, easy to digest food, which all tasted awful. Horrible hospital food is a universal thing it seems. At the center of her meals was gosai no gobugayu, a standard hospital term for "five-part kayu (1 part rice to 5 parts water) for five year olds". This rather gluey, faintly grey substance, which always arrived lukewarm, had no salt in it at all, and she hated it, though she made and effort to eat it since she was so hungry.

The little girl in the bed next to hers was there because of something non-digestive system related (a broken leg if I remember correctly), so she could eat anything she liked, including such fragrant meals such as curry rice and katsudon, that her mother would bring in from outside. How my sister would stare at her meals piteously, with tears in her eyes!

Meg became obsessed with food, and going to the bathroom. She couldn't get the former, and had a terrible time with the latter because of a lack of fiber in her bland diet. She made everyone who visited her draw her pictures of her favorite foods. She also made us draw pictures of poo. It was rather funny to see the big sheets of paper around her bed, covered with little drawings of chocolate parfaits, ice cream boats, chicken legs and sushi rolls, juxtaposed with little curly mounds of poo, even a 'poo necklace' that my father had drawn for her.

(Later in life Meg trained to be a chef, and was a pastry chef at Toraya for a while. She's now gone onto a different field entirely, but she, like the rest of our family, is still obsessed with food. And she'll probably hate me for writing about her gosai no gobugayu summer on my blog!)

Filed under:  japanese lighter rice vegetarian vegan

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Filipino rice porridge is called arroz caldo and it's full of ginger to restore health. Also eaten when sick or trying to calm the stomach. Love the okayu tales and I have some hospital stories of my own. Being in the hospital as a young child is very difficult. I was in at 4 yrs old with asthma, and my parents didn't tell me they were leaving me there. They gave me a Chinese pork bun (we call it siapao), and while I was distracted with it, they left. Not nice!

When I was little my mum used to make me the chinese version of this dish, called congee, when I was sick. If she was feeling extravagant she'd add some dried scallops and shrimps, or just spring onions and perhaps a few drops of sesame oil for everyday. I still make great vats of it now when I'm sick, it's the ultimate comfort food.

@Ninette: Now you've given me a hankering for arroz caldo! My grandmother used to make it whenever we got sick as kids. It is perfect for winter, too. And I can't believe your parents did that-- although I can see siapao being a perfect diversion. We have some in our fridge right now...

As far as rice porridge goes, I noticed that the newer "fuzzy logic" rice cookers have a setting for porridge. Has anyone tried it and, if so, does it work? I'm just curious. I'd imagine you'd still get something gluelike.

Also, since I'm trying to be healthy, can you use brown rice for this recipe, or others? My sister and I are planning on heading to the commissary or Japanese market for brown sticky "calrose" style rice, and I'm wondering if it would work for other recipes. Otherwise, I'm just planning on using it to replace plain sticky rice.

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You could use brown rice, but traditionally white rice is used for nanakusagayu. I have a brown rice porridge recipe here that has green tea in it!

Interesting! My rice cooker came with a recipe for this, though the instructions just said to use "the seven herbs of spring" or something equally unhelpful. I think I have seen it as a ready-to-eat microwave product as well, though I can't imagine it would be very tasty (the other type I tried certainly wasn't). Your version looks good. Seems like it has a more risotto-like texture and isn't quite so...soupy. Maybe I should try this--I need to use my rice cooker more often.

I love arroz caldo w/ plenty of ginger and garlic, both are good stuff. It's the most similar to thai-style porridge, which is flavorful as well. Congee is too bland for me. Maybe I'm accustomed to heavier seasonings.
For brown rice porridge, I love Maki's chagayu recipe. I use Japanese brown rice and genmai tea. It makes my kitchen so fragrant.

I love the history and personal anecdotes that you include with your recopies. Food differs culturally, but food is what unites us all as human beings. We need it, crave it. I love how this blog celebrates and recognizes this while sharing helpful recipes.

As a kid, I used to love butter rice, too! I actually preferred it to my mom's fried rice back then-- those were the two ways my mom would use up day-old rice.

@lorena: I use the porridge setting on my rice cooker all the time. With my rice cooker, one cup of rice makes a couple of servings of okayu-- and it turns out creamy, not gluey at all with short-grain rice.

I saw packets of freeze-dried nanakusa while I was loitering about the supermarket the other day, and bought one - had nanakusa-gayu yesterday evening as the finisher to my nabe. It's so easy cooking everything in a rice cooker, even the nabe.

I made a version of this yesterday, based on a lovely little book by Kimiko Barber. She suggested using brown rice, but I just used Calrose. I thought I'd used 7 green things, but I think I might have only actually used 6 - coriander/cilantro, parsley, spinach, rocket/arugula, leek and asparagus. I also added a little soy sauce and rice vinegar and topped it with a sprinkling of toasted white sesame seeds.

I don't suppose it's very authentic at all, but it was lovely, and very easy to make. I suspect I'll be making it again soon with some bok choi I have in the fridge...

Oh, and I had some re-heated this morning, and it was almost as good then.

oooh thankyou, I'm making that today! Exactly what I need for my feast-weary belly, love that description.

There is an entire book of medicinal versions of this dish,for every ailment you can think of.
Its a chinese medically inspired concept.If your liver ails you,the doctor usually told you to make congee with cow liver in it.
This book has some of that in it,but a lot of it is vegitarian ,and its full of great recipes.
Its suggested that if you eat congee every day for breakfast,you will never get sick.
Its called;
The Book of Jook,by Bob Flaws

I live in Japan and one of the New Year's gifts we received this year was a box of okayu and goma dofu made by the zen temple, Eihei-ji. The okayu was delicious. It didn't come with any vegetables, but it did have some tasty umeboshi with it.

Are there common names for the other Japanese greens you listed besides the daikon no ha and the kabu no ha? I looked in the grocery store and could not find the other greens by the names you listed.

After pigging out for seemingly endless weeks, this dish looks wonderfully refreshing and clean. I think the Chinese new year traditional has a similar type of "detox" meal on one of the days following the new year.

Sorry if this is a stupid question, but is this 1 rice cooker cup to 8 rice cooker cups of water, or just 1 regular cup of rice to 8 regular cups of water? Thank you ^_^

"Jook" works wonders when you have an upset stomach and can't eat regular food.

this looks super yummy - i love fresh dark greens, and i think that after the holidays, when you're full of too much, this is perfect. thanks for the recipe!

Here in northern Italy the standard food when one is not so well is "riso in bianco": boiled rice (cooked and strained like pasta in salted water) with parmesan and raw olive oil or butter. Strangely I find the butter version easier to digest than the oil version.

The rest of Italy uses "pasta in bianco" (same recipe, except in the south the butter version is rare), but rice is more a confort food to me than pasta.

This reminds me of mama's rice porridge. I remember she would make this when we were not feeling well. The porridge always made things better!

I would love to make some during the cold winter months. Thanks for sharing the recipe.