Water Dropwort/Japanese Parsley seri is a peppery spring herb that grows traditionally near mountain streams. It has a unique scent not dissimilar to watercress. Although references to it can be found in the “Nihon shoki” (the oldest chronicles of Japan), these days the number of producers has decreased significantly. It has become a rare commodity. It is recommended with fried oysters and is said to be particularly good with eggs.
Seri is one of the seven wild spring herbs haru no nanakusa, that are customarily eaten as part of a rice porridge gruel on January 7th. This special day known originally as Jinjitsu (day of the spring herbs), was traditionally observed as one of the five seasonal festive days Go-sekku derived from the ancient Chinese calendar. The other six of the seven traditional herbs include: cudweed, radish, chickweed, turnip, shepherd’s purse and nipplewort. Since ancient times, it was thought to be auspicious to eat the rice gruel porridge to banish evil and prevent illness. These days a seven herb set can be purchased at supermarkets for a limited period prior to January 7th. This year I bought some from my local shop, but instead of making porridge I tossed them into a warm winter salad to accompany a delicious Roast Beef. Washed down with a deep glass of red wine I felt “gremlin-free” after dinner.
Preceding dinner on January 7th, I had indulged for the second time this year in an afternoon bowl of hot whisked matcha tea accompanied by my favorite traditional Japanese sweet hanabira-mochi which is associated with New Year celebrations.
Over a thousand years ago in Kyoto, the Heian court’s annual events included a tooth hardening ritual, in effect a ceremony designed to ensure symbolically long life (given that strong teeth were needed). This ritual involved eating various foodstuffs as varied as: wild boar, giant radish, salted sweetfish and gourd, served on a layer of mochi pounded glutinous rice. Many centuries later, hanabira-mochi (flower petal mochi), served as a symbolic representation of that ancient ritual, with the root vegetable, burdock representing the sweetfish and the miso bean paste jam miso-an the other ingredients, enfolded in a circle of mochi. Plain mochi is repounded to make the consistency even softer, spread thin and round and stuffed with miso-an miso and adzuki bean paste jam, with cooked burdock sticking out a little on both sides, and folded. This traditional sweet was created by a Kyoto confectioner who had supplied the Imperial court since 1503.
Every year I look forward to the appearance of hanabira-mochi with great anticipation. The unlikely combination of both salty and sweet ingredients with a variety of textures makes for a sensational taste experience. At approximately three times the price of regular wagashi traditional Japanese sweets, it is definitely somewhat of a seasonal splurge.
This year on January 7th, it had also been a cold day similar in temperature and feeling to January 5th, the fifteenth day after the winter solstice marking the beginning of the period of shōkan (Lesser Cold). It is one of the 24 seasonal points sekki in the “Calendar and Daily Life” “koyomi to seikatsu” guidance for traditional living. Although shōkan precedes the next seasonal point of daikan (Greater Cold), it is perhaps felt more acutely by individuals as the body has still not completely acclimatized to the damp cold feeling of mid-winter in Kyoto!