Many of us like to make resolutions in the New Year to change our bad habits and weary ways. We pledge never to touch sweets again, or to imbibe. But many cultures also have food traditions that when eaten on New Year’s day are supposed to bring us luck, whether or not we follow through with our resolutions.
For my Germanic family, our lucky meal was usually pork stuffed cabbage with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut was considered lucky, or maybe healthy, because it did seem to clean out your system and give your body a fresh start. With our north German/Nordic roots, we also ate pickled herring or matjes during the New Year holiday. There were three different kinds – a pinkish one mixed with ligonberry crème, a normal pickled version, and a brownish pureed version. As kids we used to dare each other to try it at our extended family gatherings. Today I don’t crave pickled herring at the holidays and it’s certainly an acquired taste to most! In Germany, Poland and Scandinavia, it’s believed that eating herring at the stroke of midnight will ensure a year of bounty—as herring are in abundance throughout Western Europe. Also, their silvery color resembles that of coins, a good omen for future fortune. Other German families ate pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. In Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, and Austria pigs are supposed to symbolize progress. This is because pigs never move backwards, and they push their snouts forward on the ground when rooting for food. It’s not limited to just pork containing foods – cookies and biscuits shaped like pigs count for this New Year’s Luck.
Looking south, below the Mason-Dixon line, people prepare black eyes peas – which resemble coins and collard greens, which resemble paper money as their New Year’s meal. The dish, sometimes called Hoppin’ John , sometimes has a coin hidden within, ensuring luck for the finder. And, don’t forget an iron skillet of cornbread, whose rich color is a reminder of gold.
Around the world, legumes and beans, peas, and lentils are eaten because of their symbolism of coins. In Italy it’s custom to dine on ‘cotechino con lenticchie,’ or sausages and green lentils just after midnight. In Brazil, the first New Year’s meal is lentil soup or lentils with rice. The rice bulks up when cooking, symbolizing a swelling wallet.
Since 1909 Spanish and Portuguese folk have been eating 12 grapes to represent the months of the year. This started when grape growers of the Alicante region of Spain initiated the practice to take care of a grape surplus. The trick is to eat them all before the stroke of midnight. And if you taste a sour one that means the corresponding month will be also.
In Greece, a pomegranate is smashed on the floor in front of the door to break it open and reveal the seeds representing prosperity and good fortune.
Anything round or ring shaped is good luck in Scandinavia. They have the Ring Cake, made with round chewy almond past cookies glued together in stack formation with icing. Donuts are considered lucky in Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands.
Moving to Japan, soba , or buckwheat noodles are eaten at midnight. Noodles are considered a sign of longevity so the longer they are the better. Another guarantee of long life is the shrimp, shaped like the back of a hunched over elderly person. On New Year’s morning, in some Japanese homes, the dish to eat is ozone, a soup composed of pink rimmed fish cake, daikon, carrot, and shitake mushrooms floating in a rich dashi broth made of kelp and bonito. For dessert, the chewy rice cakes, called mochi, oven toasted like marshmallows, accompany the rich soup.
The Chinese new year is celebrated about a month later than the Western New Year – specifically February 18, the good luck foods are whole fish, oranges and tangerines, and dumplings shaped like old Chinese ingots, and noodles for longevity.
Whatever your culture’s food, it never hurts to get a symbolic boost for a good new year!