Long before the 16th century, when the Manchus of Asia believed that sacrificing pigs drove away bad spirits, folks have been consuming all sorts of edible talismans to attract wealth and happiness in the New Year. Hungry for some good fortune in 2018? It’s available in all flavours.
Legendary for its opera and arts, Vienna is one of Europe’s most refined and elegant capitals. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the city sheds its sophisticated facade to showcase—of all things—pink pigs. No ordinary hogs, these Viennese porkers are sweet, elaborate, edible, and artistically crafted from marzipan and meringue, and grace shop windows throughout the city. At the chocolate counter in Julius Meinl am Graben, Vienna’s luxury food emporium, residents queue up to buy intricately sculpted marzipan pig ears, tiny nougat snouts, and chocolate piglets in all sizes. Based on the notion that pigs symbolise progress (pushing forward when rooting in the soil) and prosperity (because they’re fat), Vienna’s sweet versions are shared with friends and family to bring good luck in the New Year. Find them at institutions such as the 138-year-old Café Landtmann and Café Aida (Vienna’s coffeehouse chain, where the decor is pink) or shaped into cookies and perched on pink, frosted petit fours at seasonal street vendor carts all over town. Families enjoy watching the classic windschweinchen (whipped, pig-shaped meringue) being decorated at Café Demel; at glamorous Café Sacher, each table boasts a miniature Sacher torte (Vienna’s famous chocolate cake speciality)—topped with the season’s lucky, little pig.
In Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro, eating lentils is only one of many customs believed to ensure a year full of riches and good luck. Come New Year’s Eve, Rio’s Copacabana stretch of sandy shore fills with more than two million partiers dressed in white (to signify a clean and fresh start in the Afro-Brazilian culture), tossing flowers into the sea (gifts to the sea goddess for more good fortune) and jumping seven consecutive waves (to have seven wishes granted). Many Cariocas (locals) dine with their families at home before heading to the beaches on December 31—getting their lentils fix early. Others visit their favourite restaurants. In Rio’s Santa Teresa district, locals like to grab a table on the veranda at Espírito Santa,overlooking the historic neighbourhood. Meat eaters gravitate to the elegant (and expensive) Giuseppe Grill Leblon. Closer to the beach, popular Alfaia, off the bustling Avenida Copacabana, has been serving Portuguese fare for some 15 years. No one knows how or when the lentils became lucky in Brazil, but it’s likely that the amalgam of European, African, and indigenous cultures here played a part. Since Roman times lentils have symbolised coins; Brazilians (as well as Italians) have believed them to be a symbol of prosperity.
The idea of downing a dozen grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve for good luck started in 1909 in Spain (combine a glut of grapes at harvest time with some savvy marketing). But it didn’t take long for other Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico to adopt the unusual custom. Revellers in sunny Acapulco have been finding the fresh grapes (usually green and seedless) on New Year’s Eve tables all over the city for years. The more upscale places such as Kookaburra with its bay views and Zibu (think Mex-Thai fusion) even like to showcase the ceremonial grapes—placing them in individual ribboned baskets at place settings. The hip Becco al Mare, along with the landmark Las Brisas hotel’s BellaVista Restaurant, have been known to pile the lucky orbs in crystal goblets. According to tradition, at midnight, everyone eats 12 grapes in 12 seconds, a bonding experience that’s neither easy nor graceful. Some say each grape eaten characterises the corresponding month—sweet or sour depending on the grape; others simply believe it’s good luck to make a wish on each one.
Japan is famous for its noodles, but none are infused with as much symbolism as the soba (buckwheat noodle)—especially on New Year’s Eve, when shops are open and practically everyone slurps down the customary toshikoshi (literally: “year-passing”) soba. The noodles, usually eaten warm in a steamy, rich broth, are found everywhere from train stations and fast-food chains such as Komoro Soba to the sleek Honmura An, where diners can watch a master soba chef at work year-round. The dish symbolises the peace and prosperity resulting from the 17th-century Edo period (when the soba noodle became common), and those who eat it are said to enjoy not only good fortune in the new year but a long life. Among the city’s most authentic and oldest soba shops is the picturesque Kanda Yabu Soba (opened in 1880) with its carved wooden gates and bamboo garden. Another notable noodle purveyor near Tokyo’s spectacular Senso-ji Temple is Namiki Yabusoba. Little has changed in the tiny tatami-matted space since it was founded in 1913.
Midnight on New Year’s Eve in Athens means cutting the traditional round cake known as vasilopita (St. Basil’s bread), a Greek Orthodox custom since the ninth century. Whoever receives the slice holding the lucky coin baked into the dough is assured a year of good fortune. Every pastry shop in the city has its own version. Try places such as classic Varsos, Veneti (a local chain), or the well-known Terkenlis.
Similar to deep-fried, fruit-filled doughnut holes, oliebollen are the edible and lucky choice for crowds strolling the Dutch capital of Amsterdam during the holidays. Usually stuffed with apples and raisins, the tennis ball-size Dutch treats are sold at many street vendor stalls outlined in lights—try the one near Museum Square—or at numerous city bakeries such as historic Bakkerij Venekamp, said to make some of the best.
Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice) has long been part of a traditional meal in the American South. But eating it on New Year’s Day has special significance: “Eat poor that day. Eat rich the rest of the year. Rice for riches and peas for peace,” notes an old Southern saying. A traditional Low Country food dating to slavery days, Hoppin’ John originated on Carolina rice plantations. Greens such as collards—representing dollars—are sometimes added to the mixture, and occasionally a coin is even buried in it—bonus luck for the finder. In downtown Charleston, South Carolina, residents feast on the homespun dish at Jestine’s Kitchen along with other soul food staples such as fried green tomatoes, okra gumbo, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and coconut cream pie. The humble fare (minus the coin) graces menus at upscale Charlestonian restaurants, too. Try it at the elegant 82 Queen or the city’s storied Poogan’s Porch (both in the historic French Quarter), where Hoppin’ John is served with classics such as pulled pork, fried catfish, and Carolina crab cake.
Unlike in the West, in India every community has its own date to celebrate New Year, usually based on the religious calendar they follow. During Ugadi or Gudi Padwa, the New Year for Hindus from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, a dish called ugadi pachadi is made: It’s a melange of raw mango, neem flowers, jaggery, tamarind, and chillies. The same dish is called maanga (mango) pachadi in Tamil Nadu and is the highlight of the Puthandi (Tamil New Year) feast. In Kerala, the year’s beginning is marked by Vishu, which swings by around April. Vishu meals aren’t marked by one specific dish, but most homes indulge in an elaborate vegetarian feast or sadhya to celebrate the occasion. Avial, made with a bounty of fresh vegetables including drumstick, carrots, white pumpkin, beans, ash gourd, and raw bananas cooked in ground coconut and yogurt, is very popular.
A Muslim New Year’s meal is a carnivore’s delight, laden with fragrant biryanis, meat curries, and hunks of grilled mutton. Visit a Bohra home (on the third day of Muharram), and you’ll be treated to a generous thaal: a table-sized plate filled with bowls of fruit, dates, meat, pickles, pulao, salads, sweets, and ice cream. Traditionally, groups of four share a plate, and sweet and savoury courses are alternated, starting with dessert. Other Muslim communities celebrate with wedding-worthy feasts featuring mutton biryani, malpua (pancakes soaked in sugar syrup), and earthen bowls of chilled phirni.
Zoroastrians ring in Navroz, or the Parsi New Year (in August) with a sweet tooth. In Mumbai and parts of Gujarat, boxes of suttarfeni (a nest of slender, sugary threads) and malido are exchanged. Malido is an impossibly rich sweet made with ghee, flour, semolina, eggs, an assortment of nuts, and vanilla essence. It is said, a few spoonfuls of malido is enough to render one inactive for several hours.
Bengalis too mark the New Year (Pohela Boishakh) in April. Enthusiastic Bangla mashis make patishapta, pancakes stuffed with coconut, sugar, and khoya (milk solids) while others stock up on sweets like pethe, rice-flour pouches stuffed with date jaggery, palm syrup, grated coconut, and dates. Sindhis and Punjabis, on the other hand, have both sweet and savoury—together. Both communities favour a delicious pulao made of rice and jaggery that’s eaten with spicy jeera aloo in Punjabi homes on Baisakhi, and with took, deep-fried, chilli-smacked potato discs, in Sindhi households on Cheti Chand.
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “The New Year’s Lucky Bites”.