Azuki-gayu (rice and azuki bean porridge) (小豆粥)
Azuki-gayu is rice porridge cooked with azuki beans. It is one of the foods eaten on celebrative occasions.
Azuki beans have been used in religious rites since old times due to the linkage between its red color and a magical belief of the rice farming race. Introduced in Shugaisho (Compendium of fragments, attributed to Kintaka TOIN) written in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (of Japan) is a story that azuki-gayu is derived from a Chinese legend: people received an oracle of the spirit of silkworm that they would get a hundredfold of silkworms if they worshiped the silkworm spirit making an offering of porridge in the middle of the New Year period.
In old China azuki-gayu was eaten on the day of winter solstice. This practice later developed to a custom of eating 'laba congee' (congee eaten on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month) on December 8 (old calendar), which is made from rice, azuki beans and several kinds of grains and nuts, and in the southern China of the Six Dynasties period people ate bean porridge on January 15 (old calendar) according to the "Xingchu suishiji" (an almanac of events in life in the Xingchu region in China). It is considered that this practice was introduced to Japan creating a custom of eating azuki-gayu on the morning of January 15, which is koshogatsu (小正月: New Year's Day according to the old calendar). According to the "Engishiki" (an ancient book for codes and procedures on national rites and prayers), on the day of koshogatsu, "nanakusa-gayu"(rice porridge with seven spring herbs) was eaten in the Imperial Court, which contained rice, azuki bean, awa (foxtail millet), sesame, kibi (common millet), hie (Japanese millet) and mutsuoregusa (Glyceria acutiflora Torr.), and the general government staff were served with more modest porridge of rice and azuki bean, which was called "okayu." There is a view that the concept behind these practices was an understanding that nanakusa-gayu would effectively be made by adding other grains to the base porridge of rice and azuki bean. KI no Tsurayuki wrote in his Tosa Nikki (Tosa Diary) that he ate "azuki-gayu" on the morning of January 15 (Koshogatsu) in 935. In the Edo period, porridge eaten on the 15th day, namely "望の日" (mochi-no-hi: mochi written as 望 means a full moon, and mochi-no-hi means the day of the full moon, i.e. every 15th day of the lunar months) was somehow differently interpreted as porridge of "餅(の日)" (mochi(-no-hi): mochi written as 餅 means rice cake), and people started a new custom of eating azuki-gayu with rice cakes in it. There are some regions in Japan today where people celebrate such occasions with azuki-gayu or azuki-zoni (soup containing rice cakes, azuki beans, vegetables and other ingredients) as the New Year, rice planting, shinchiku-iwai (a gathering to celebrate the completion of a new house) and Daishiko (a festive folk event often related to the great Buddhism teachers such as Kobo Daishi (a posthumous title of the priest Kukai)). On November 23 (old calendar)(present-day December 23), when Daishiko is conducted, people make an offering of azuki-gayu together with a pair of chopsticks made of kaya (eulalia) with each stick having a different length from that of the other. In some regions, the chopsticks, which were believed to be the same as those used by Daishisama (the Great Teacher) when eating azuki-gayu, were used after the event as a charm against evil or as a charm for children's excellence in studies and skills.
Azuki-gayu and sekihan (white rice cooked with azuki beans) have a number of features in common, such as both being eaten on celebrative occasions. In addition, sprinkling sesame and salt on sekihan is considered not only as seasoning but also as a reflection of an old days' act of adding other grains to azuki-gayu.