Friday, January 18, 2008

七草 - Nanakusa

Before the birds of the continent (China) fly to Japan, let's get nanakusa.

January 7 is the day to eat nanakusa (七草), the 7 herbs of springtime. 7 for luck. 7 for health. 7 for the ritual of the 7th day. You're supposed to say the above saying as you cut and steam the herbs to add to the simmering rice gruel. It's the beginning of the end of the winter fast. The air is cold. The trees are brown and leafless, yet somewhere (perhaps at the huge seasonal displays in the vegetable sections of every supermarket) you are to find the first of the year's herbs and vegetables. Turnips (すずな) and daikon (すずしろ), for sure. They keep long and hardy under the blanket of earth even as the air around grows cold. They're a staple of the Japanese diet because they last through the short, but brutal winter. Then there's the water dropwort (せり), the shepherd's purse (なずな), the cudweed (ごぎょ), the chickweed (はこべら), and the nipplewort (ほとけのざ) - hardy survivors of the winter, straggly, moderately edible, delicious for their bursts of chlorophyl on taste buds numbed by a meagre diet of  roots and rice. 
And then there's the myth, or is it the empirical wisdom of centuries, that gives the herbs and vegetables healing powers - shepherd's purse for clear vision,  cudweed for nausea and fevers, chickweed for being regular, dropwort (or Japanese parsley) for digestion, nipplewort for toothaches, daikon to stop neuralgia and whooping cough, and turnips to promote good digestion (and with willful mistranslations from the online translator - it's also good for burning servants and freckles).
The days are getting longer though there's a chill in the air. Nanakusa reminds us that it will soon break and the promise of springtime is not far.


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