Today is January 7th which is known as nanakusa no sekku (七草の節句), or the Festival of the Seven Weeds in Japan. Historically the 7th marked the last day of Oshougatsu (Japanese New Years), and to this day, people eat Nanakusa Gayu (七草がゆ) to observe it.
Nanakusa Gayu, which literally translates to "seven weeds rice porridge", is a type of okayu or rice porridge. Of the many types of rice porridge in Japan, okayu tends to be very soft and very bland because it's typically something you eat when you're sick. Nanakusa Gayu is no exception and aside from the cultural and spiritual significance, it's not a highlight of the Japanese culinary repertoire.
Some people eat it out of tradition, some eat it to make amends for their New Years gluttony, while others eat it out of the belief that it will ensure health and wellness for the rest of the year, but I've yet to meet anyone that eats it because it tastes good.
Instead of the usual flavorless greul, I decided to take this dish, which dates back 1000 years to the Heian Period, and do something new with it. The vision was to make a creamy flavorful risotto with the sharp verdant notes of the nanakusa prominently featured. So what are these seven weeds you ask?
- Seri (せり) Oenanthe javanica – Goes by the common names Japanese Parsley or Chinese Celery and is also known as Minari in Korean. You should be able to find Seri in Japanese or Korean grocery stores. Don’t try to forage for this as it does not grow wild outside of Asia and most species of dropwort are toxic.
- Nazuna (なずな) – Goes by the common name Shepherd’s-Purse. I’ve foraged for this on the West Coast, but you probably won’t be able to find it in grocery stores.
- Gogyou (ごぎょう) Gnaphalium affine – Goes by the common name Jersey Cudweed. Despite the name, you’re probably not going to find this in the US.
- Hakobera (はこべら) Stellaria – Goes by the common names Chickweed and Stitchwort. I’ve foraged for this on both the West and East Coasts, and I believe it’s pretty common all over the US.
- Hotokenoza (ほとけのざ) Lamium amplexicaule or Lapsana apogonoides – So here’s the deal with this one, Lamium amplexicaule which goes by the common names Henbit Deadnettle or Greater Henbit was probably the original Hotokenoza, but somewhere in the past millenium, Lamium amplexicaule which goes by the common name of Nipplewort got substituted and so it is also known as Hotokenoza in Japan.
- Suzuna (すずな) Brassica rapa L. var. glabra – Suzuna is the old Japanese name for turnip.
- Suzushiro (すずしろ) Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus – Suzushiro is the old Japanese name for daikon.
For the rice, I wanted to retain the creamy texture of okayu, but with plump grains of al dente rice. I'd originally thought about using Carnaroli or Arborio, but decided that strayed too far from from the original and so I used Japanese sushi rice instead. This turned out to be a really good call, so much so that I don't think I'll be using Italian rice to make risotto anymore.
As for the seven weeds, any preparation including the whole leaves would mean the flavors would be hard to disperse in the rice, and cooking them tends to tame their flavor. That's why I decided to puree the leaves into a raw pesto with some olive oil. Placing a dollop of nanakusa pesto on top of the risotto not only presents nicely, it allows you to progressively stir it in, changing the flavor of the rice as you go.
Because some of these greens will probably be pretty hard to come by in the US, my recommendation is to use a selection of greens you enjoy that are available near you. Arugula, Rapini, Parsley, Kale, and Watercress would all work well.
- In a saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and saute the turnip and daikon until they become translucent.
- Add the rice and stir to allow the butter to soak in.
- Add the sake along with 1 cup of vegetable stock and start stirring. Continue cooking until the stock is absorbed and the rice mixture is very thick.
- Turn down the heat to medium and continue adding 1/2 cup of vegetable stock at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to fully absorb between each addition.
- Stop adding liquid when the rice is your desired consistency. I went to about 2 3/4 cups.
- Add salt to taste.
- In a small food processor puree the olive oil and greens to make a pesto.
- Serve the nanakusa gayu with a dollop of pesto on top.