Here in the United States of America, chances are good that you're ringing in the new year with champagne. Other nations and cultures opt instead for symbolic foods to celebrate, which vary by custom and tradition. Here, we list a full menus-worth of items that you'd need to consume around the globe in order to have a healthy, prosperous New Year.
Keep in mind that none of these traditions have a basis in science. In other words, you should take the efficacy of each of these traditions with a grain of salt. (Ironically, salt is not one of the foods with any sort of "New Year's luck" associated with it!)
12 GrapesConsumed In: Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Cuba, more
The tradition holds that one should pop a single grape into one's mouth, for every tolling of the bell at midnight. Each of the 12 grapes is meant to be a diviner of how good each of the months of the year will shape up for you. If one is bitter, that month will not be so good for you; but if one is extra sweet, something good might happen that month.
The somewhat disappointing origin of the tradition supposedly dates back to the early 1900s when grape growers in Spain wanted a way to use up their surplus grapes. Apocryphal! In Peru, locals also try to cram in a bonus 13th grape, just for kicks.
Beans, Peas, or Tiny LegumesConsumed In: Chile, Italy, Southern U.S., more
In Chile, they eat a spoonful of lentils at midnight; in the southern U.S., black-eyed peas are consumed (on their own, or in a dish called "Hoppin' John"); in Italy, they also eat lentils, and have since early Roman times. Each of these traditions seems to have similar origins in the belief that these foods look like coins.
Hard to imagine when you consider our modern currency, but if you look back at some ancient coins, say from Rome or wherever, they could be tiny and oddly shaped... just like lentils! The idea is that by eating "coins," you're inviting more wealth into your life. Look, we're not saying it's a good explanation, just an explanation.
NoodlesConsumed In: Japan
Though commonly eaten all year round, buckwheat soba noodles take on a whole new meaning for the Japanese on New Year. On that day, they adopt the name of toshi-koshi ("from one year to another") and they're meant to be eaten at midnight, with the long noodles representing longevity. If you want to add some extra anxiety to the festivities, you have to slurp up and swallow the whole noodle, without it breaking, to get any benefits.
Leafy GreensConsumed In: Denmark, Germany, Southern U.S., more
Along similar lines to "coin-look-alike foods" are leafy greens which look like paper currency and, thusly, are something you want to put inside you on New Year's to ensure prosperity. (Yet, no one thinks of simply eating a bowl of $10s and $20s. It'd be way more literal.)
In the southern U.S., collard greens stand in for cash, while in Denmark, kale (sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon) plays that role. Of course, in Germany, they rely on good ole cabbage to get the job done, but in the form of sauerkraut. Though once "kraut-ed," cabbage barely resembles paper money, but hey, none of these traditions make any sense so far, so why start now?!
Ring-Shaped CakesConsumed In: The Netherlands, Mexico, Greece, more
All over the world, people eat round or ring-shaped cakes to ring in the New Year because the roundness symbolizes that things have "come full circle."
In Portugal, they eat a special, ring-shaped cake called Bolo-Rei (translated as "king cake") that resembles a crown, which contains, and is covered with, dried fruit. The Saint Basil's Day cake, or vasilopita (translated as "king bread") is Greece's version which can be any round cake, savory or sweet. Mexico bakes a sweet bread called Rosca de reyes (translated as "king's ring" — are you sensing a pattern?), the ingredients of which can vary, but usually contain figs, quinces, cherries, and/or dried and candied fruits.
Often, these cakes are prepared with a coin baked into them, too. The person who finds it will, of course, be blessed with added prosperity that year. (Not including the cost of the dental bill from chomping down on a hidden piece of metal in their cake, we suppose.) If the tradition of eating round or ring-shaped things can extend to doughnuts (with our without coins), then this is one tradition we can get behind!
FishConsumed In: Almost everywhere
Many cultures eat fish on New Year's, supposedly because their scales look like coins. Or so the story goes. The story also goes that it could be because fish swim in schools, so this is a tradition all about "togetherness." After eating their traditional cod, Germans have been known to put a few of the fish's scales in their wallet for good luck.
Others posit that fish is a traditional New Year's food because people learned how to salt and preserve fish pretty early on in the history of civilization, so it was one thing you could be sure you had when the weather turned cold. But, sure, "scales as coins" sounds good too.
PorkConsumed In: Austria, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Southern U.S., more
Pigs are a common farm animal, and are often slaughtered around January. By then, the pig is nice and fat and the weather permits for open-air butchering without the meat spoiling; so we definitely eat pork on New Years because it brings prosperity.
The "scientific" thinking says that since pigs are fat, that's like being well-off. Thus you want to eat one of these well-off pigs, to get some of that "well off-ness" inside of you. Strangely, no one considers that this "well-off" pig was just slaughtered and eaten. Do we really want our year to be like that?
A second legendary suggestion is that we eat pork on New Year's because pigs, when they eat, root forward, and thus pigs represent progress that we wish to make in the coming year.
Pomegranate SeedsConsumed In: Turkey, Greece
This food isn't so much "consumed for good luck" as it is "destroyed to determine your luck." Since it involves food and New Year's Day, we think we're ok to include it.
In Turkey, the red fruits are thrown into the street (sometimes from a balcony) and the more they burst, the better, because it means a more plentiful year. In Greece, though, they are hurled at your doorstep; if more seeds squirt into your house than out, you'll have a good year. No matter what, though, every year will start with you cleaning pomegranate seeds from your front door.
And a Few Foods to Avoid...
Lest you think New Year's is a time when you can eat anything you darn well please and squeeze some kind of good luck from it, think again. There are certainly foods that tradition tells us to avoid at this time.
For instance, stay away from lobster as it's a creature that swims backwards. Eating it will result in your life moving backwards and a loss of progress. The same goes for chicken, because those guys scratch backward at the ground with their claws. Further, any winged food is bad, because those wings, once eaten, will make your luck and prosperity fly away. Fact.
What about you, reader? Which ones are you going to add to your New Year's menu? Do you have any other culinary habits for when the bell tolls twelve? Resolve to tell us all about them, in the comments below!