New Year’s Food

When I was a kid, I was the queen of New Year’s resolutions. I remember proudly proclaiming my goals to my family and writing them on post-it notes in my best handwriting, then taping the notes to my bedroom wall so I could admire how diligent I’d been in following them come December. (In truth, I usually kept at them until February.)

Nowadays I don’t make many resolutions specially for New Year’s—I’ve come to prefer the thought that every day is an equal opportunity to begin anew—but there remains something wonderful about a time dedicated to starting over, to second chances and new promises. And, of course, New Year’s also comes with something else that’s almost (if not just) as great: seriously yummy food!

Food is a crucial part of New Year celebrations all over the world, and from its symbolisms to its preparation methods, there are more similarities between different countries’ edible traditions than you might think. Let’s take a look at some New Year’s culinary crossovers from across the globe!

Lentils (Around the World) and Hoppin’ John (American South)

Widely thought to resemble coins and thus symbolize prosperity, lentils are a staple New Year’s food in many cultures. Every country has their own means of preparing them: Italians tend to cook them with pork, representing the fat or bounty of the land, while Nigerians may make them with staple Nigerian ingredients, such as bell peppers and onion.

Interestingly, the slave trade from Africa to the United States gave way to one of the American South’s most beloved New Year’s foods: hoppin’ john. Originating with slaves in South Carolina, hoppin’ john is made with black-eyed peas rather than lentils, but it takes a nod from African tradition in that the beans, like lentils, symbolize wealth and fortune. Sometimes, the meal is cooked with a coin; whoever gets the coin in his/her dish gets extra luck in the new year (and maybe a trip to the dentist!)

A bowl of hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas, rice, vegetables)

Round Fruits (Philippines) and Kagami Mochi (Japan)

Many round foods besides lentils are thought to represent prosperity around the world. This idea is key in the Philippines, where families hold traditional dinner parties called Media Noche that center around circles. Guests arrive decked out in polka dots from head to toe, and many families attempt to put twelve different types of round fruit on the table, from grapes to oranges to melons. This is meant to bring twelve months of good fortune.

media noche
A Media Noche spread in the Philippines

The theme of round fruit continues in Japan with kagami mochi. Kagami mochi consists of two round pieces of mochi, a glutinous rice cake, stacked on top of each other with a citrus fruit on top. Rather than representing coins and wealth, the roundness of kagami mochi represents the continuity of generations and long life. Traditionally, they were placed in multiple rooms of the house as decoration before being eaten on January eleventh, but nowadays most families purchase one kagami mochi from the supermarket and display it on an altar before consumption. They are often decorated with paper.

Kagami mochi
An undecorated kagami mochi

Twelve Grapes (Spanish-Speaking Countries)

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve in Spain, people will eat twelve grapes, one with each chime of the clock. (Twelve grapes in twelve seconds– if you try this one, take care not to choke!) Each grape symbolizes a wish for happiness and luck for each month of the new year. Legend has it this tradition began long ago with grape suppliers in the Alicante region of Spain who, one year, had an overabundance of the fruit.

12 grapes
Prepared packs of twelve grapes for New Year’s

Thanks to Spanish colonization, the baseline of this tradition now exists in Latin America as well, although it can take slightly different forms. For instance, Peruvians often eat thirteen grapes for good measure, and in Portugal, people use raisins instead of grapes.

Round Cakes (Around the World)

Though there are many names and variations of cakes, the tradition of eating a round cake on New Year’s spans the entire globe. Mexicans have the Rosca de Reyes; Bulgarians have the banitsa; Greeks have the Vasilopita; the French have the galette des roise.

Most of these cakes are eaten at midnight on New Year’s Eve and include some kind of hidden figure, such as a gold coin or plastic doll. Getting the slice of cake with the hidden treasure can be a good or bad thing; depending on the culture, it could mean anything from a prosperous year to the responsibility of throwing the New Year’s party next January!

I could go on and on, but it’s time for me to start on my own New Year’s celebrations! Maybe this year I’ll try something new… it’s not too late to bake a banitsa, right? I encourage you guys try out something new too and let me know how it goes!

As always, I’d love to hear any of your personal traditions in the comments. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!