With January 1st not only ringing in a new year but a new decade, I wanted to start it off right. One way I might better my odds is by eating foods with lucky connotations. But where to begin, as the options are plentiful? What culinary lucky charms must be consumed to insure a bright new year?
New Year’s celebrations exist virtually worldwide. In some countries the advent of the New Year is the most culturally significant holiday, while in other countries it is merely one of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which culminate with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Still other countries’ calendars might recognize new years on a different day all together, but it is celebrated at some level.
Cabbage and Greens
Cabbage, for some, is a slang for money, so eating it on New Year’s Eve insures that your pockets are lined the following year. Generally, cooked greens including cabbage, collards, kale, and chard, are consumed on New Year’s in different countries, because their green leaves look like folded money, and so symbolize economic fortune. Few eat their greens the same way: the Danish eat stewed kale sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, the Germans devour sauerkraut, and in the southern United States, collards are the green choice. Now this sounds like a tradition spread by a mother, but if it works, I’m game.
Legumes, Lentils and those Black-Eyed Peas
Legumes including beans, peas, and lentils symbolize money as their appearance resembles coins that swell when cooked, so with an eye towards pockets swelling with funds they are eaten – its not just their resemblance to money but that they swell too, and are symbolic of growth in the New Year. In Italy, it’s customary to eat cotechino con lenticchie or sausages and green lentils, just after midnight—a particularly prosperous meal because pork has its own lucky associations, so its a two for one deal in the luck department. Germans also partner legumes and pork. In Brazil, the first meal of the year is often lentil soup or lentils and rice, and in Japan, the osechi-ryori, a group of symbolic dishes eaten during the first three days of the new year, includes sweet black beans called kuro-mame.
In the Southern United States, it’s almost mandatory to eat black-eyed peas or cowpeas in a dish called Hoppin’ John. Some take this tradition to a new level believing one black-eyed pea should be eaten for every day in the new year. According to legend, this tradition traces back to the Civil War, when the town of Vicksburg, Virginia, ran out of food while under attack, until the towns folks discovered black-eyed peas and the legume was thereafter considered lucky.
The custom of eating pork on New Year’s is based on the notion that pigs symbolize progress or prosperity for many cultures – not a connection that may immediately come to mind. The animal pushes forward, rooting in the ground before moving, symbolizing progress. In Italy, the fatty meat also symbolizes the fattening of wallets.
Roast suckling pig is served for New Year’s in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Austria. Austrians are also known to decorate the table with miniature pigs made of marzipan, and Slovakians hand out pig shaped cookies. Different pork dishes such as pig’s feet are enjoyed in Sweden while Germans feast on roast pork and sausages. In the United States, Southerners usually eat ham with the peas, or hog jowls if the previous year had been unlucky.
In Italy, sausages such as Cotechino Modena, made from pork, fatback and pork rind, or Zampone Modena, essentially the same filling but stuffed into a pig’s foot, are served with lentils. The sausages date to the 16th century when the Modenesi were besieged during a war and had no food. Cotechino allowed them to both preserve meat and use the less-tender cuts.
Yes, pork hogs the table in terms of its appeal during this holiday.
Bread and Cakes
Special breads also are popular good-luck foods. Sometimes, its the bread itself, other times, its what the lucky nibbler finds in his or her slice that makes the difference in the luck department. Added emphasis is placed on round or ring-shaped items. Breads like doughnuts or bagels which are shaped like rings are thought by some people to represent the year coming full circle, and are believed to bring luck.
Italy has chiacchiere, which are honey-drenched balls of pasta dough fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands also eat donuts, and Holland has ollie bollen or “oil balls”, puffy, donut-like pastries filled with apples, raisins, and currants.
In other cultures, it’s customary to hide a special trinket or coin inside the cake—the recipient will be lucky in the new year. Mexico’s Rosca de Reyes or King’s Cake does double duty in that it is a ring-shaped cake decorated with candied fruit and baked with one or more surprises inside – often a doll, and whoever gets the doll is king for the day and must find a woman to be his queen. Sweden and Norway have similar rituals in which they hide a whole almond in rice pudding—whoever gets the nut is guaranteed great fortune in the new year. In England Christmas puddings often contain coins or small trinkets symbolizing what might be expected in the new year.
In Greek households, the lucky bread is vasilopita, a yeast cake that’s associated with St. Basil’s Day, also celebrated on January 1. A coin is baked into the bread, and when the bread is sliced at midnight, the recipient can look forward to even more good luck in the new year.
In parts of Italy, a sweet bread or cake like a panetonne or a torciglione is sliced and served as a symbol of hope and prosperity. Torta della Befana is a cake in which a large bean is hidden, and finder receives good fortune for the year.
Cakes need not be round. In Scotland, where New Year’s is called Hogmanay, there is a tradition called “first footing,” in which the first person stepping foot into a home after the new year determines what kind of year the residents will have. The “first footer” often brings symbolic gifts like coal to keep the house warm or baked goods such as shortbread, oat cakes, and a fruit caked called black bun, to make sure the household always has food.
Armenians eat their darin: a large flat bread with a coin baked inside; whoever gets the piece with the coin is assured good luck for the coming year.
The French indulge in a stack of sweet crepes for luck.
In Germany, pretzels are lucky food. Children even wear them around their necks on New Year’s.
Many African Americans make a coin-shaped cookie called Benne Wafers, made of sesame and cheese, for good luck in the new year, or to celebrate Kwanzaa.
Austrians call New Years- Sylvesterabend, after St. Sylvester whose feast day is Dec. 31. At a Sylvesterabend dinner, staples include pink pig cookies and tables decorated with miniature marzipan pigs. Slovakians, not surprisingly given their proximity to Austria offer pig shaped cookies.
Whole fish is commonly served, as it is believed to ensure abundance – having it served in slices is not the same – so in Vietnam, for example – serving an entire carp is lucky as it is thought to support the god of luck on its back.
The Danish eat boiled cod, while in Italy, baccalà, or dried salt cod, is enjoyed from Christmas through New Year’s. Herring, another frequently preserved fish, is consumed at midnight in Poland and Germany—Germans also enjoy carp and even place a few fish scales in their wallets for good luck. The Swedish New Year feast is usually a smorgasbord with a variety of fish dishes such as seafood salad. In Japan, herring roe is consumed for fertility, shrimp for long life, and dried sardines for a good harvest (sardines were once used to fertilize rice fields).
Americans of German or Polish descent think of herring for New Year’s luck. Pickled in brine or served as rollmops—pickled and then wrapped around onions—it must be eaten at the stroke of midnight for maximum luck. The fact that North Atlantic herring is plentiful and silvery signifies abundance on two counts.
The Cantonese eat oysters because their name in that language sounds like the word for “good business.”
For the Chinese, tangerines (good luck) and oranges (wealth) also represent abundant happiness are a required gift when visiting family and friends during this time. Tangerines with the leaves intact assure one’s relationship with the other remain secure. The reason tangerines are considered lucky is that they have the same sound in Chinese as “luck” and orange has the same sound as ” wealth” so its a sort of language pun.
Pomelos symbolize abundance and prosperity for the Chinese during this time. [Source: FoodMuseum.com]
Many families keep a tray full of dried fruits, sweets, and candies to offer guests. This tray is called a chuen-hop, or “tray of togetherness”. Traditionally, it was made up of eight compartments, each filled with a special food item of significance to the New Year season. [Source: Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco]
Vietnamese families have a tray of five fruits on their altar including banana, orange, kumquat, pomelo, and finger citron. Each symbolizes a different meaning: Pomelos promise a lucky year, banana and finger citron symbolize a protective hand, while kumquats and oranges represent wealth and success.
Spanish revelers consume twelve grapes at midnight—one grape on each strike of the clock. This dates back to 1909, when grape growers in the Alicante region of Spain initiated the practice to address a grape surplus. The idea stuck, spreading to Portugal and former Spanish and Portuguese colonies such as Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru. Each grape represents a different month, so note, for instance, if that third grape is a bit sour, March might be rocky. For most, the goal is to swallow all the grapes before the last stroke of midnight, except the Peruvians,who add a 13th grape for good measure.
Other Fruit and Vegetables
In Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, pomegranates symbolize good luck for the coming year because of the red color and the shape of the seeds, which represent money and prosperity.
In Vietnam, the watermelon is the ultimate New Year’s fruit because the meat is red, the luckiest color. The seeds are also dyed red and toasted, to be eaten as snacks.
The Chinese eat food wrapped in lettuce as the name is similar to “rising fortune”.
In Israel, apples dipped in honey and other sweet fruits are attractive.
Noodles represent long life in some cultures. In Persian cooking, they make a delicious noodle soup called Ase-e-reshteh that brings good fortune to new endeavors. Eating strands of noodles is like selecting the best option from the myriad of possibilities. Here’s more on Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration.
In China dishes with long, uncut noodles are preferred. Care should be taken on slurping these noodles down as a broken noodle indicates that a life may be shortened and the long noodle points to long life.
In Japan Buckwheat Soba noodles are an important part of the Japanese New Year Celebrations. The long noodles are meant to symbolize long life, and you should take care to eat them without breaking the noodles. Buddhist Monks also eat a type of crunchy noodles at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the bells in the Buddhist temples are rung 108 times.
Rice and Mochi
Rice is also popular worldwide. The many grains signify abundance, while rice greatly increases volume when it cooks, clearly indicating growth in the coming year.
In Korea, a ricecake soup is the preferred dish as eating a bowl is thought should increase ones life span by a year.
In Japan, mochi is one good luck food. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice that’s pounded into paste and molded into shapes, mostly balls. Mochi is available year-round, but the week between Christmas and New Year’s is when families get together for mochitsuki – the name of the mochi-making ceremony in Japan – or head to local Japanese markets. The mochi is often topped with a bitter orange called daidai. The orange makes the dish doubly lucky because “daidai” also means “several generations.” Another good read on Japanese New Year’s food, or Osechi Ryori can be found here and Leela, of SheSimmers just did an excellent post on Mochitsuki
No Backtracking and Mixed Signals
Lobster unfortunately, falls under the “NO” category as they move backwards and could therefore lead to setbacks. This bit of wisdom can be ignored if you are celebrating Japanese style, in which case the curve of the lobsters back resembles the back of an elderly person, hinting at long life.
Skip the chicken dishes as well, because the bird scratches backwards, which could cause regret or dwelling on the past. Also eating fowl might result in good luck flying away.
In many places, as previously mentioned, fish are thought to bring luck. If you are in Hungary, not so – they have a strict “no fish” policy, as eating fish might cause your money to swim away, or at the very least slippery to hang on to – something to be avoided.
At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, they avoid bitter or sour foods.
Final bits of Wisdom
In Germany, it’s customary to leave a bit of each food on your plate past midnight to guarantee a stocked pantry in the New Year. The Filipinos have a similar idea; it’s important to have food cover the table at midnight. Most traditions are focused on eating on New Year’s Day and not New Year’s Eve, so once that final strike of the clock, its time to dig in. The good luck dishes are suppose to be the foods consumed first.
Now that I have a better sense of what foods are key to good luck, I think I’ll try a monk’s vegetarian dish from China (jai choy) given that every ingredient was selected because of its promise to delivery on good fortune, longevity and prosperity:
- dried oysters = good business
- fat choy (sea moss that looks like long dark hair) = prosperity
- Chinese black mushrooms (fulfill wishes from East to Wast)
- fun see (long clear bean threads) = longevity
- lilly buds = 100 years of harmonious union
- lotus seeds = birth of sons
- dried bean curd = plenty
- white cloud ears and snow peas are added because you need more luck and prosperity
Best wishes and much happiness in the New Year! Not mentioned on the list are ingredients for peace and harmony, but having both is my wish for 2010.