Whether you consider them traditions or superstitions, many cultural customs intended to bring good luck are quite tasteful. That is, they involve food. The fresh start of a new year is a popular time to eat these lucky dishes, whether it’s a savory favorite to keep you fully satiated, like black-eyed peas and pork, or a sweeter treat such as cake or fried dough. Here are 18 foods believed to usher in good fortune with every bite.
Black-Eyed Peas (Southern United States)
Perhaps one of the best-known traditions in the U.S. is having black-eyed peas to celebrate the new year. Especially prevalent in the Southeast, black-eyed peas are believed to have “mystical and mythical power to bring good luck,” according to John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History.
According to Southern Living magazine, the peas’ lucky association dates back to 500 C.E., when they were eaten for the Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh Hashanah. However, the Washington Post reports that the version that spread to the U.S., especially the Carolinas (where the beans are primarily eaten with rice), has roots in Africa. Twists on the traditional delicacy include serving the peas with cornbread, which symbolizes gold, and tomatoes, to represent both wealth and good health. Another belief is that putting a small coin in the pea pot will bring extra luck to the person who ends up with it. Others even say one should eat 365 black-eyed peas to ensure good luck every single day of the coming year.
Greens (Southern United States)
Another food tradition prevalent in the South is eating greens at the beginning of the year. Though collard greens are a popular choice, any kind of leafy, green vegetable, such as cabbage, mustard greens, or turnip greens, is acceptable, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.
The reasoning? Apparently, ingesting foods that look like dollar bills will help bring prosperity in the coming year! Some people also cite the phrase, “Eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year.”
Pork and Sauerkraut (Pennsylvania Dutch Country)
The German combination of pork and sauerkraut migrated to the U.S. with the Pennsylvania Dutch — and the timing was always right for winter butchering to result in Christmas or New Year’s meals featuring pork. However, the luck part comes from the actual motion of the animal. Since pigs walk forward and never backward, they signify progress in the new year, as opposed to chickens or turkeys, which tend to move backward. And since sauerkraut is made of cabbage, pairing the meat with the greens turns it into an especially lucky meal.
Soba Noodles (Japan)
In many Asian cultures, the long shape of noodles is associated with longevity. In Japan, soba noodles made of buckwheat add a sense of resilience, since the plant itself can withstand even the harshest weather elements, according to The Japan Times. The noodles can be bitten off in a clean cut, showing a solid break from the previous year. Eating toshikoshi soba (toshikoshi means to jump from one year to another) has become a long-standing tradition for the new year, dating back to the 13th or 14th century.
While the exact origin of soba noodles is unknown, it’s believed that a wealthy lord treated people to soba on the final day of the year during the Kamakura or Muromachi periods. The word for the triangular shape of the buckwheat’s grain, mikado, is the same as the word for emperor, thus symbolizing power. The tradition became especially widespread through the Edo period from 1603 to 1868 and continues to be a widely celebrated custom today.
Green Grapes (Spain)
While it’s not quite like downing hot dogs on the Fourth of July at Coney Island, Spaniards ring in the new year with an eating challenge of sorts. The tradition of las doce uvas de la suerte, which is Spanish for "the 12 lucky grapes," requires participants to eat one grape every time a bell chimes and finish all 12 of them by the final dong at midnight in order to ensure luck for the new year.
Since simply popping them in your mouth doesn’t count (they must be fully swallowed), 80% of the grapes used for the challenge come from the Mediterranean coast’s Vinalopó valley in Alicante, where they’re grown with a finer peel. The Aledo variety is so special that it’s protected by designation of origin status and tends to be “fleshy, deliciously sweet, and pale — almost whitish-green in color,” according to NPR. While it’s believed that the tradition started when there was a grape surplus in 1909, newspapers also mention it back in the 1880s.
Round Fruit (The Philippines)
The 12 grapes tradition is thought to have been brought to the Philippines by the Spanish, but then expanded to include all round fruits, USA Today explains. This typically includes apples, oranges, pears, peaches, plums, lychees, melon, grapes, and cherries, as well as local fruits like pomelo, star apples, and Asian pears — as long as they’re circular to represent coins that will bring good fortune.
The 12 fruits are usually displayed in a basket throughout the New Year’s Eve dinner — and then at midnight, a bite is taken out of each of the fruits. To really make that prosperity stick, pair the fruits with a traditional sticky dessert made of glutinous rice, such as sapin sapin or palitaw.
Oranges and Tangerines (Asia)
In parts of Asia, oranges and tangerines are considered lucky because their bright, happy color is a symbol of good fortune. On top of that, the word for tangerine in Chinese is similar to the word for gold, so the fruit is believed to bring wealth, while the word for orange is similar to the word for luck, adding a level of homonymic symbolism. During Lunar New Year, the two fruits are exchanged between friends, and also placed on children’s pillows next to red envelopes with money inside.
Oliebollen (The Netherlands)
When the holiday season arrives in the Netherlands, so do the oliebollen stands. Literally Dutch for “oil balls,” the pastries are basically deep-fried dough balls filled with chocolate or raisins and topped with powdered sugar. They're such serious business that there’s even an annual competition to find the best oliebollen maker every year.
The sweet treat is believed to have a powerful purpose, as eating them can help fend off the evil desires of the pagan goddess Perchta, who flies around looking for food during the 12 days of Christmas. To stave off her hunger, she’s even known to slice open stomachs. According to Paste magazine, “tradition said that eating oliebollen protected you because the fat absorbed from the cooking oil made Perchta’s sword slide off of her victims.”
Dumplings are thought to look like gold ingots, which is why they’re so popular during Lunar New Year. Bonus luck can be tucked into the dumplings in numerous ways, such as by making dumplings with 18 folds or eating eight or nine of them, since those are all lucky numbers. But how many you eat can be a tricky thing, according to chef Andrew Wong. “It's a Chinese tradition that you never finish your plate. It means your host hasn't fed you properly. So [serving] more is generally better as a rule of thumb,” he said.
The Italians’ love for food is shown in their multi-course, hours-long meals on New Year’s Eve. When the clock strikes midnight, one of the first things served is lentils. Since the little legumes are round like coins, eating them is believed to bring both fortune and luck in the new year. The luck is often multiplied by serving the lentils alongside pork, typically cotechino (spicy pork sausage) or zampone (pig hoof stuffed with sausage).
The pomegranate tree was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, which indicates just how essential the fruit has been since ancient Greece. The fruit symbolizes fertility and rebirth, and has also appeared in ancient artwork, including a painting of a necklace with gold pomegranates found in Mycenae and a brass sculpture discovered at the Acropolis.
Eventually, the pomegranate also came to symbolize luck, in what can be a messy New Year’s tradition. On the morning of January 1, a pomegranate is broken on the front door’s threshold to usher in luck, though others go one step further and say that the number of seeds that fall out equals the amount of luck that household will have in the new year.
Ring-Shaped Cakes (Globally)
The full circle of the year is represented throughout various cultures with ring-shaped desserts, such as chiacchiera (fried pastries often made with lemon, wine, egg, and olive oil) in Italy and the sweet bread roscas de reyes in Mexico. One of the most famous ring-shaped cakes is king cake, which is eaten on the Twelfth Night to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings after the birth of Jesus, as well as on Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Inside the round cake — most popularly baked by Joe Gambino’s Bakery in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of yellow, green, and purple — hides a little plastic baby Jesus. The person who finds it is said to be blessed with good luck and is crowned king or queen for the day.
The origins of pretzels may be a little, well, twisted. Around 610 B.C.E. in a European monastery, a monk rewarded his students for learning their prayers by giving them leftover bread as a pretiola or “little prize.” But first, he wove the bread together to look like crossed arms praying, thus creating the shape we know now as the pretzel.
Though that story may be disputed, monks later gave the snack away to the poor during the Middle Ages, leading it to become a symbol of fulfillment, good fortune, and prosperity. As proof of just what a prevalent sign of luck it was, the pretzel became a crucial part of medieval culture, even showing up in the manuscript Hortus Deliciarum written by German nun Herrad of Landsberg in the 12th century. Nowadays, the lucky pretzels seem to be most prevalent in Pittsburgh, with numerous bakeries serving the snack on New Year’s.
Tray of Togetherness (Asia)
At first glance, the “tray of togetherness” probably looks like any old party tray, but this precisely arranged snack board is presented during Lunar New Year — either on a tray or in a box — with six or eight items for good luck or good fortune, respectively.
While the actual contents on the tray can vary, some popular items include red watermelon seeds for fertility, gold chocolate coins for wealth, cashews that look like gold ingots, candied coconut for family togetherness, and candied lotus root for abundance, as well as the popular White Rabbit milk candies and the strawberry-scented Lucky Candy.
Whole Fish (Asia)
Although weddings and birthdays are a common time to indulge in this superstition, no special occasion is needed to channel the good luck that eating a whole fish can bring in most Asian countries. The Chinese word for fish is a close homonym to the Chinese word for abundance, leading many to believe eating an entire fish will lead to an abundance of wealth and good luck.
Chef Chris Yeo suggests cooking the fish for eight minutes — a lucky number — to add to the good fortune. While the fish is served whole with the head and tail, it’s never completely finished, to show that the families always have enough. And one part has an added significance: “Being offered the head of the fish is a show of respect, because that is the most-prized and the most-flavorful part of the fish,” cookbook author Corinne Trang told the Cooking Channel.
Pickled Herring (Scandinavia and Poland)
In northern Europe, many believe that eating an abundance of these silvery fish at midnight on New Year’s will bring both bounty and wealth. While the Polish go for a version called sledzie marynowane, which is soaked for 24 hours in a jar layered with onions, sugar, all spice, and vinegar, Scandinavians tend to offer pickled herring as part of a smörgåsbord at New Year’s celebrations.
Ozoni Soup (Japan)
The first meal of the year for the Japanese involves carefully placed bites in a bento box known as an osechi-ryori, but the most essential part is the accompanying soup known as ozoni (or ozouni), which combines the Japanese words for boiled food and mixture.
The soup — a tradition going back to ancient Japanese samurai families — starts with miso or dashi (basic soup stock) and is then filled with mochi (rice cakes), vegetables, and meats. The exact ingredients vary by region, with the western Kansai area preferring a “sweeter and milkier” version with yams, daikons (radishes), and carrots, and the eastern Kanto region using a dashi spiked with sake or mirin (rice wine), along with chicken and veggies.
Koreans indulge in tteokguk, or rice cake soup, for Lunar New Year. Instead of individual birthdays being celebrated, everyone moves up a year together — and celebrates with a rice cake, which also translates to “year cake.” Eating one “signals that you’re getting a year older and, hopefully, better as a human being,” chef Sohui Kim told Bon Appétit magazine. “The older generation says, ‘If you don’t eat your tteokguk, you won’t get a year wiser!’”