Seven-Herb Soup: A Vegan Answer to Chicken Soup?

January  6, 2016

It isn't even a week into the new year, yet you’ve already been endlessly bombarded with talk of resolutions, variations of “New Year, New You” (who says there’s anything wrong with Current You?), and a multitude of healthful things you’re supposed to be eating. Even if you’re not ready to embrace quinoa or eat salads with every meal, in all likelihood, you might be craving a bit of a break from the excess of the holidays. (No? Go make cookies.)

This is rice with peas, not rice with herbs, but you get the idea. Photo by James Ransom

Enter seven-herb rice porridge (nanakusagayu). This dish is eaten in Japan for breakfast on the 7th of January, which is Nanakusa no Sekku—this means the “Festival of the Seven Herbs,” but although nana does mean “seven,” the most direct translation of kusa means "grass." I guess a feast of seven grasses sounds less appealing. As does porridge, come to think of it—let’s call it a thick soup.

I digress.

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The seven herbs traditionally used in the soup are seri (water dropwort), nazuna (shepherd's purse​), gogyo (cud​weed), hakobera (chickweed), hotokenoza (nipplewort), suzuna (turnip leaves), and suzushiro (daikon leaves). If you’re in Japan, procuring these greens is easy: Walk into your local grocery store and pick up a plastic clamshell filled with all seven items. If you live anywhere else, chances are you aren’t you aren’t finding the majority of them. Not to worry, substitute whatever herbs and greens you like or have on hand: parsley, arugula, cilantro, watercress, spinach, basil, sorrel, other root vegetables leaves—the possibilities are endless!

How to Make It

Making this dish couldn’t be easier: Start with plain white rice, wash it, and put it in a pot with water. (While preferred rice-to-water ratios vary to yield the perfect soup, try 1/2 cup of uncooked rice to 4 cups of water, as in Food52er Kyoko Ide's recipe.) Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat, and keep it at a gentle simmer until the rice is cooked. Then add your finely chopped herbs and greens, let them wilt for just a minute, and serve.

There are multiple beliefs behind the tradition of eating seven-herb rice soup, but the one perhaps most applicable to us is that it’s meant to bring good health by giving your digestive system a rest. Plain white rice and herbs are easy on your stomach, but they might be a bit too easy on your palate. It might not be strictly traditional—you already aren’t finding all of the herbs, might as well throw caution to the wind—but I recommend using dashi or a light vegetable stock (like my beloved Rapunzel bullion cubes) instead of water. You might even want to add in a well-whisked egg to get wispy​ strands of egg, like in egg drop soup.

I like to think of this dish as something akin to chicken soup (albeit a vegan version if you forgo​ the egg)—it's simple, comforting, and satisfying, yet easy on your stomach. And while I can't promise you a year's worth of good health if you eat it, it certainly won't hurt​.

What are your favorite foods to get after over-indulging? Tell us in the comments!