Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sorry, Not Nanakusa-Gayu

Just a regular-porridge, not nanakusa-gayu

As I wrote before, my dad likes observing traditional customs very much. So maybe some of you expected my family to eat nanakusa-gayu (rice porridge with the seven herbs of spring) on January 7th? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but we don’t. (For a very thorough explanation and an authentic recipe of nanakusa-gayu, visit Amy’s site. ;))

You might expect traditional customs to be better observed in rural areas while gradually dying out in big cities, but this nanakusa-gayu custom could be an exception -- it might be spreading from bigger cities to countryside now, at least in some parts of Japan. The reason is that to obtain the “official” seven-herbs for nanakusa-gayu at this time of the year, you need to be in an area with good distribution system. In many places in Japan, some of the seven-herbs are not available in the field at this time of the year, and the only way to get them is to buy a “nanakusa kit” at franchised big supermarkets. So if there’s no such supermarket in the area, there's no way to get the “official” ingredients. I guess that’s the reason why this custom is not observed in some very rural areas or the ingredients are substituted with whatever locally available.

I may be wrong but from what I have read, this porridge-eating custom was imported from China, and in place of the herbs Chinese people were using at that time, our ancestors picked seven Japanese herbs for the ingredients. I assume the person who decided the “official” seven-herbs in Japan picked the ones available around the New Year's Day in old Chinese calendar in the particular area where he was living.

In my hometown, my family has never made nanakusa-gayu, and I don't remember any of my elementary school classmates mentioning the porridge-eating custom. Teachers made us memorize the names of the seven herbs, but we had never seen most of them. In Kochi city where I live now, I saw the packed nanakusa herbs at a nearby supermarket, though I just didn't feel like buying them this year.

Perhaps, as franchised supermarkets and convenience stores become popular in rural areas, and as TV cooking shows feature nanakusa-gayu more often than before, the custom would be introduced to rural areas including my hometown. I might try making the nanakusa-gayu myself next year. After all, it seems to be a good idea to rest our stomach with this kind of meal after a week of osechi-binging and sake-drinking.

Anyway, my porridge in the top photo isn’t nanakusa-gayu. I cooked leftover rice in the soup of yudofu (simple tofu soup?) from the night before, just to finish up the leftovers ;P


Kelken said...

Hi Obachan,
You are right, the Chinese do have a version of porridge which is usually served on the Seventh Day of New Year, by New Year I mean Lunar New Year as the Chinese do not celebrate Western New Year (actually, technically the Chinese New Year should be called Lunisolar New Year as the calendar is a hybrid of lunar and solar calendar, but Lunisolar doesn't sound as exciting...). However, the ingredients used are mostly vegetables of the season (not herbs) and, as such, the choices of ingredients vary from province to province. But this is not very universal. I have the impression that it is primarily practised in the Northern part, people in the Southern part of China and Taiwan do not have such tradition. And the Chinese emigrants in South East Asia have raw fish salad instead. But I think the meaning of the Seventh Day of New Year is still universal, which is the birthday of Man (this is a genderless noun!) as the folklore claims that man was created on the seventh day after the Universe was created out of void. And actually, beginning from the Eve until the Fifteenth Day of New Year, each day has a meaning. I wonder if there is also this similarity between Japanese and Chinese New Year. Oh but the seven-veggie porridge was not something I fancied a lot when I was a child. I would much prefer the eight-crop porridge which was usually served on December the Eighth. The ingredients are rice, glutinuous rice, date, lotus seed, lily, chestnut, ginkgo, barley, longan, peanut, red bean... you see, something sweet (but wait, something doesn't compute, did I not say eight-crop porridge? well yes, but again each province has a different version, and as we become more and more cosmopolitan through education, travelling, inter-dialect-group marriage, we have embraced the other varieties as well, and we actually like them too!) Okay, I should stop here, just realised that the blurp turned out to be a long drawl...

obachan said...

Wow, this IS an interesting piece of information. Thanks so much for sharing. :D
If I hadn’t started this blog, I couldn’t have had any chance to know about the custom of having raw fish salad or eight-crop porridge. I think I would prefer eight-crop porridge to seven-veggie one, too. ;)

I didn’t know that celebrating the 7th day of the New Year had something to do with the creation of Man, though. I did find a Japanese site that briefly explains an old Chinese belief, and it says “一日鶏、二日狗、三日羊、四日猪、五日牛、六日馬、七日人.” Is this what you mean?

Over here in Japan it is said that the God of the New Year (called Toshi-gami) visits every household on Jan. 1st, guided by kadomatsu decorations, and stays on kagamimochi until Jan. 7th. Some say that people were not supposed to cook/work while the toshi-gami was staying with the family, and that was why a big amount of osechi dishes were made for the family to live on them for six days. According to that theory, making the seven-herbs porridge was the first cooking of the year because on Jan. 7th, the toshi-gami leaves the family. But again, this is the knowledge I just got from the internet, which looks to be the “standard” version, and I think this differs in different places in Japan.

Different customs/rituals in different areas are indeed interesting, but I feel for the wives who had to re-learn new customs in a new family from strict mother-in-laws…

Kelken said...

Yep yep yep! And 初八谷, 初九天, 初十地. The origin of this came from an old Chinese belief. And speaking about Chinese belief, it is also one of the very confusing aspects of the culture for a child, at least for me. This is because for the same event or character, there is usually more than one source for the outcome. For instance, one Chinese legend has it that all living things on Earth were created by a half-serpent-half-human lady. The order of creation follows exactly what you just mentioned. She was also responsible for being the matchmaker and taught man procreation. On the other hand, another account has it that in the beginning, after the world has been created, there were only the lady and her elder brother. They wanted to have children to kill the loneliness but were too embarrassed to become man and wife. Then one day, they could bear it no more and so decided to pay a visit to a mountain to seek advice from God (The literal meaning in the original text actually means sky (天). It has no religious reference to God. Religion is only a very recent creation. It is, perhaps a weak analogy, akin to rolling a dice when one is desperate.). There in the mountain, they told God if he was in favour of them becoming man and wife, then he should give them a sign by gathering all the clouds in the sky together, if not he should disperse them. Instantly, all the clouds in the sky suddenly came together, and with that, the lady and her brother became man and wife and bore children who later became man. Confusing, yes?

Oh and about the origin of Year, it came much later. Unfortunately, New Year used to be a nightmare for Chinese. It came as a form of malicious beast called Year (年) who would terrorise the village every New Year. So every New Year Eve, the villagers had to hide themselves in the mountain to avoid being eaten. Then one New Year Eve, there came a monk who sought to tame the beast. With the aid of firecrackers, lantern and couplet, he chased away the beast. (Couplet is a kind of poetry which requires much wit and command of the language. It has a tad of resemblance to limerick but much more serious.) As a result, it became a part of tradition to light firecrackers and lanterns and have couplets on the door every New Year Eve to scare away the beast. One wonder how a terrifying beast can be afraid of these things... Anyway, these are the sort of stories shared between parents and children or grandparents and grandchildren. Amusing, yar?

dotmoll said...

I heard that the 7 herbs used to vary from region to region...but I've never heard what the "alternative" herbs are. Anybody know?

obachan said...

Oh, that explains it! I’ve always wondered why people use firecrackers for Chinese New Year. Now I know. Thanks for the info.
It’s so interesting that legends and myths in different places often have some commonalties. In our myth, too, there were a brother (God) and a sister (God) first, and later they got married. And they did ask a higher God an advice.

Maybe what we have here is quite confusing to many non-Japanese people. See, we imported Chinese customs and in doing so, also imported old Chinese beliefs, and then modified them or combined them with Japanese Shinto beliefs and finally adjusted the customs to fit to the solar calendar.

You mean in Japan? I’m not sure but I read on the net that somewhere in Hokkaido, they use veggies like daikon, carrots and burdock. Also I heard some leafy vegetables of the season like mizuna, komatsuna, spinach or shungiku seem to be used in some areas, but I don’t know exactly where.