Get Lucky this New Year’s with Food from Many Cultures

One perk of living in multi-cultural Berkeley is having friends and neighbors who grew up in many lands. I’ve asked around and discovered an array of food traditions from across the globe that are believed to ensure a lucky New Year. So, let’s nibble and nosh our way into good fortune for 2011.

New Years Eve

12 grapes at midnight - Spain

Spain Grapes – Xabier Zapata, owner of Happy Hour Fitness on Solano, hails from Northern Spain. He was happy to share with me the Spanish custom of eating 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve as the clock strikes 12. You are supposed to eat one grape at each chime of the clock. Organized revelers pre-seed and peel their grapes to have them ready for the quick countdown.

Brazil – When I asked my Brazilian friend Sarita about New Year’s customs in her homeland, at first, she couldn’t think of anything special. She shrugged and said, “Of course, everyone in Brazil dresses in all white on New Years, don’t you?” After I responded with a puzzled shake of my head, she began to come up with a host of other Brazilian customs that she had taken for granted.

Pomegranate seeds - Brazil

Pomegranates, a food you eat to attract money in the new year. You have to suck on seven pomegranate seeds without swallowing them, then wrap the little white pits in paper and store the packet in your wallet to have money all year round.
Lentils bring luck because they resemble coins and swell as they are cooked, symbolizing an increase in wealth.
While holding a glass of champagne, take three short hops without spilling a drop, then throw the champagne back behind you to let all that is bad stay in the past. (The person the champagne lands on gets good luck.) Also be sure to start the new year with new underwear and clean sheets on your bed.

Italy is another country where lentils are on the menu for New Years Eve, accompanied by cotechino spicy sausages. Here’s a recipe.
Pork has positive connotations for many cultures, as pigs nuzzle forward. By this logic, backwards-scratching chickens and backwards-scooting lobsters  would make for unlucky dining on December 31.

Germany – my friend Rudi, who grew up in Germany, told me that Glücksschwein or marzipan pigs are traditionally exchanged and eaten on New Year’s Eve. In Germany, pigs also epitomize good luck, especially with a shiny coin in their mouth. These cuties are available from Cost Plus and Nordic House or you can make your own.

Marzipan pig with coin - Germany

Denmark –To me, almond paste makes any day a holiday. It is an integral part of the traditional celebratory cake of Denmark, Kransekage. This tall marzipan cake is formed of 18 or so concentric rings that rise into a peak. Nordic House sells a kit with a set of circular pans and here is a recipe, courtesy of the Embassy of Denmark.

Kransekage - Denmark

The store clerk at Nordic House shared another delightful Danish custom: jumping into the new year. Just before midnight, everyone climbs up on chairs in all their finery, and jumps off into the new year as the clock strikes 12.
Some people in Denmark serve kale (the leafy greens resemble folded money); they are topped with sugar and cinnamon to make them sweeter. Others eat boiled cod with mustard sauce.

Japan – New Years is one of the most important holidays of the year, with many different special foods. Toshikoshi, buckwheat soba noodles, are eaten on New’s Eve to symbolize long life.  Each new year represents a new start and should be greeted with a clean house and clothes.

New Years Day

In Japan, there are many traditional foods eaten on the first day of the year. Last week, while interpreting for a legal assignment, I overheard the court reporter say she grew up in Japan. At lunch time, I peppered her with questions about  mochi, the pounded rice balls made with sweet rice and water. Esther was delighted to tell me about her familiy’s traditions.  In the old days, people pounded the hot rice mixture by hand and spread it out on long trays to cool (nowadays, most people use electric mochi pounding machines). Before the mochi hardens, it is cut up. Then either eaten in a soup called zoh-ni or placed in the broiler until it turns brown and puffy, and  dipped in shoyu and wrapped in toasted nori (seaweed).  This week Tokyo Fish Market has several special fresh varieties of komochi for pre-order; if they run out, they also sell it frozen.

In the Southern US, traditional New Year’s Day fare is a meal of black-eyed peas (beans that swell up, symbolizing coins and wealth, along with mustard greens (resembling folded money) and golden corn bread.

Surprisingly, this southern tradition may have Jewish roots. Syrian Jews have served black-eyed peas for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for thousands of years, following a Talmudic exhortation.  Other Sephardic Jews who moved to the new world in the 18th century adopted this dish and continued the tradition. Meanwhile, African slaves had brought the beans to America in the 17th century.  An article in the Jewish Daily Forward states:

Many Jews of the South had black cooks, who prepared a combination of what their Jewish owners or bosses requested and dishes from their own culinary traditions. In the case of black-eyed peas, those traditions overlapped, both groups having their own preparations of the beans. Though the two black-eyed pea traditions intersected in the early South, they didn’t meld into one; nor did one seem to rub off on the other.

Even More Good Luck in January

Many countries continue the celebrations into January with round or ring- shaped cakes that contain hidden coins, beans, or figurines. The lucky person  gets the slice with the hidden treasure. In Greece, Vassilopita is served on January 1, and honors Saint Basil. It is traditionally baked with a hidden coin and is sliced and handed out in a strict order. The lucky recipient is blessed for the coming year.

Mexico – Rosca de Reyes is a traditional cake made to celebrate The Day of the Three Wise Men in early January. A baby Jesus figurine is hidden in the cake, which is decorated with candied fruits. Whoever finds the figure gets to host next year’s celebration – Mi Tierra on San Pablo makes 3 sizes of the cake for several weeks in December and January.

rosca de reyes - Mexico

France also bakes special cakes for Epiphany or January 6. The Galette des Rois features puff pastry with a fragipane filling. Originally the hidden object, “la fève” was a bean, but it has broadened into a vast array of porcelain or plastic figures depicting everything from famous works of art to cartoon characters. The cakes often come with a golden paper crown that goes to the person who finds the lucky treasure. Locally, you can find these delicious French cakes at both  La Bedaine and Masse’s Pastries. Here’s a recipe, if you want to make your own.

Galette des Rois - France

Urte berri on  – Basque
Godt nytår  – Danish
Gelukkig Nieuwjaar – Dutch
Bonne année  – French
Prost Neujahr  – German
Buon anno – Italian
Akemashite omedetô  – Japanese
Feliz ano novo  – Portugese
Feliz año nuevo  – Spanish


About Anna Mindess

A sign language interpreter by day; a food writer by night. Endlessly fascinated by looking at the world through the eyes of different cultures -- and tasting its variety. Anna lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and daughter. Author of READING BETWEEN THE SIGNS and now a freelance writer for KQED's Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine and other publications.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Denmark, France, German Food, Italy, Japan, Jewish Food, lucky food, Mexican food, Spain and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Get Lucky this New Year’s with Food from Many Cultures

  1. Ilana DeBare says:

    Fabulous post! Now I just have to figure out which traditions to incorporate into our dinner this year. Leaning to that French cake.

  2. I ate grapes on New Year’s Eve in Sevilla a few years ago. Fun!

  3. Pingback: A Year of Cross-Cultural Culinary Encounters — and a Giveaway! | East Bay Ethnic Eats

  4. Pingback: Deaf Culture in Action at Deaf-Owned Restaurant, Mozzeria « Deaf Culture That

  5. Nancy Corbin says:

    I so enjoyed the information you have given. I am helping to work up a menu for a New Years party here where I live. I reside in a building of 51 seniors, from many ethnic backgrounds. I am probably going to be the cook, so I’m getting pretty excited about “mixing it up”. Thank you.

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