Eat. Drink. Celebrate.

Culinary traditions for luck and love in the New Year

Dec 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm

It’s that time of year — when food seems to become the enemy for most people. We feel guilty gorging ourselves on sumptuous holiday delicacies and make a resolution that come New Year’s Day it’s back to the treadmill and nibbling on rabbit food. 

That’s all well and good for next year, but let’s not cut the celebrating short just yet. There are plenty of great food-centered traditions from around the world to help you squeeze every last delicious bit out of 2014. Besides, everyone knows that resolutions never last past Feb. 1, anyway. 

If this year wasn’t exactly financially friendly, look no further than the American South, specifically the Carolinas, to fill your stomach and your pockets. Folks below the Mason-Dixon Line prepare black-eyed peas — their small, seed-like appearance resembles coins — and collard greens, which are meant to symbolize paper money. The dish, also known as Hoppin’ John, sometimes has a coin hidden within, ensuring a year of luck to the fortunate finder. Don’t forget to prepare a pan of cornbread to serve on the side of your beans. Its rich color is, of course, a reminder of gold. 

Worldwide, other legumes including beans, peas and lentils are also eaten because they’re symbolic of money. In Italy, it’s customary to dine on cotechino con lenticchie, or sausages and green lentils, just after midnight — a particularly auspicious meal because pork has its own lucky associations. In some countries, including Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Austria, pigs symbolize progress. Some say it’s because these animals never move backward, while others believe it’s all in their feeding habits (they push their snouts forward along the ground when rooting for food). And it’s not limited to pork — foods shaped like pigs (think cut-out cookies) count, too. 

Germans also partner legumes and pork, usually in the form of lentil or split pea soup with sausages. In Brazil, the first meal of the New Year is usually lentil soup or lentils and rice. Rice bulks up when cooking, symbolizing a swelling wallet. 

Spanish and Portuguese folk have been eating 12 grapes to represent the 12 months of the year for good luck on New Year’s for more than a hundred years. The custom dates back to 1909, when grape growers in the Alicante region of Spain initiated the practice to take care of a grape surplus. The game is to eat them all before the stroke of midnight. Each sweet grape represents a sweet month. But, if a grape is sour, then the corresponding month will be sour as well. 

In Greece, when the New Year turns, a pomegranate is smashed on the floor in front of the door to break it open and reveal seeds representing prosperity and good fortune. The more seeds, the more luck. 

Ring-shaped foods are a popular symbol all over the world, signifying coming full circle. In Scandinavian countries, there’s the Ring Cake, made with round, chewy almond-paste cookies “glued” together in stack formation with icing. In Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands, it’s donuts

In Japan, soba (buckwheat noodles) are customarily eaten at midnight on Dec. 31, when they are called toshikoshi (“from one year to another”) soba. Noodles symbolize longevity, so the longer the noodles the better. Another Japanese tradition includes eating shrimp. With its curved shape, shrimp resemble the back of an old person, therefore guaranteeing the eater a long life. 

The Chinese New Year is celebrated a bit later than the Gregorian calendar’s — on Feb. 19, 2015 — and the celebration lasts for a couple of weeks, not just one night. In Chinese, the word for “fish” sounds like the word for “abundance,” which is one of the many reasons fish has become a go-to food for good luck. Fish is served intact, head to tail, to ensure a good year from start to finish. Dumplings shaped like old Chinese silver ingots are said to bring prosperity in the New Year. Other highlights include oranges and tangerines for luck, and noodles for longevity (as in Japan). 

Care to throw your resolutions out the window and celebrate Chinese New Year with an additional feast after Jan. 1 has passed? According to Susanna Wong of Oriental Wok, it’s the most important holiday in Asia. The coming year will be the year of the sheep, and, as usual, Oriental Wok will celebrate in grand style with an eight-course dinner built around all of the traditional lucky entrees and festivities. The tentative date is set for Feb. 22, 2015. More information can be found at ©