All over the world people ring in the new year in a thousand colourful and clamorous ways. But they all have one thing in common. Whether they are celebrating New Year’s Day on 1st January, observing Jewish Rosh Hashanah in September/October or marking Chinese New Year in midwinter, every culture does so with splendid ritual. The rituals are as diverse and varied as the creeds and colours that observe them but they all have the same fundamental principles at heart; they aim to entreat the new year to bring them good luck, good health and prosperity.
Symbolism abounds and is embedded in every aspect of the celebrations and nowhere more so than in the food that people feast on at New Year. Money, coins and symbols of wealth are perhaps most prevalent. While we toast the new year with a glass of golden, sparkling Champagne, the people of Peru tuck in to bowls of golden-coloured papas a la huanchaina, a potato dish tinted with turmeric or with a saffron-colored spice called tadillo.
While the Chinese will spend days, sometimes weeks, preparing the feast of meat dumplings called chiao tzu. These purse-like dumplings are filled with chopped pork and cabbage, salt, ginger, scallions, and ground white and black pepper, all wrapped in a thin skin of dough. In a large household the number of dumplings may run into the thousands. But these dumplings are only part of the New Year’s fare in China – where households will make wine, bean curd, sausages and may even slaughter a pig or two for the New Year’s Eve table. Towns and cities will be abuzz with temporary markets in the lead up to the celebration, as people enter a food-shopping frenzy (think Superquinn on the 24th December!).
The humble legume, too, features prominently in new year cuisine across the continents as beans and lentils have always been associated with money (hence the term ‘bean counters’). Possibly the most well-known new year’s bean dish is ‘Hoppin’ John’, a native dish of America’s southern states made with black-eyed peas or dried red peas, combined with hog jowls, bacon, or salt pork. This dish is often served with collard greens, the green leaves standing as a further symbol of money (notes) and prosperity. In Italy, it’s customary to eat cotechino con lenticchie or sausages and green lentils, just after midnight – a particularly propitious meal because pork has it’s own lucky associations. While in Brazil the first meal of the New Year is usually 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. The Japanese also observe a New Year’s tradition of eating a noodle called toshikoshi soba (meaning ‘sending out the old year’). This buckwheat noodle is quite long, and those who can swallow one without biting or breaking it should look forward to good luck and a long life.
Of course, sugar and spice and all things nice have to come in to play somewhere too. In Spain, Portugal and parts of South America, they greet the new year with grapes. Literally. As the clock chimes the hour at midnight on the 31st December, you must consume 12 grapes for each chime. Each grape is said to represent a month of the year to come, if say the fifth one is sour, then May might be tricky.
Cakes are also a popular culinary marker at this time of year. Many are baked with a coin or prize inside. Such cakes are traditional in Greece, which celebrates Saint Basil’s Day and New Year’s at the same time. The Saint Basil’s Day cake, vasilopeta, is made of yeast dough and flavored with lemon. While the French bake a deliciously buttery puff pastry cake filled with frangipane known as the Galette du Roi. This galette celebrates the feast of the three kings and is served in the New Year around Epiphany. Again there is a prize hidden in the cake for one lucky person – it is a tiny ceramic figurine known as a ‘fève’ – literally meaning ‘bean’.
And there is our humble bean popping up once again as a symbol of hope, growth and life for the new year.