New Year’s lucky foods embody a benign view of good fortune

“WHY VAPOR fish,” asked Andy Ricker, an author and restaurateur who ran several well-known Thai restaurants in America, “when can you beat up pieces and dip them in hot oil? When can you grill it over charcoal? As he discovered on a trip to Thailand, one answer is that steamed fish can be delicious. A recipe developed by Mr. Ricker includes ginger, spring onions, celery leaves and oyster mushrooms, which enhance the pure marine sweetness of the fish without contamination from the taste of oil or smoke. Another reason is that, in the right context, steamed fish can bring good luck.

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The Chinese words for “fish” and “abundance” are homonyms; a whole fish, eaten on the eve of the Lunar New Year – which this year fell on February 1 – represents a wish for abundance to come. It can be braised, fried, or roasted in a pan, but if you live on a coast or have access to premium fish, steaming is the way to go. These New Year meals are steeped in symbolism. Enough fish should be cooked to ensure leftovers, which means the expectation of a surplus in the coming year. Spring rolls, with their whimsical resemblance to gold bars, represent hopes of wealth. Uncut noodles symbolize longevity; sweet rice cakes anticipate a better future.

Such customs are not unique to the Sinitic world. On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, Jews bake their Brioche, a traditional enriched bread, round in shape to signify the cycle of life and creation. The bread, and often also the apples, are smeared with honey, symbolizing the wish for a sweet year. Pomegranates, with their many seeds, embody the desire to do a lot mitzvot-literally “commandments”, but more commonly understood as “good deeds” -in the coming year.

On New Year’s Day in America, black Southerners have long eaten Hoppin’ John, a delicious dish of rice and black-eyed peas or cowpeas, cooked with salt pork or smoked ham hock (the interest for African-American culture made the recipe popular elsewhere). The peas symbolize coins and the greens that are usually served also represent dollar bills. Some people put a clean penny in the jar; whoever gets it on their plate will enjoy an overabundance of luck.

It is unknown if anyone actually believes in a causal relationship between eating these foods and obtaining the promised benefits. Mainly, these culinary traditions persist for the same reason as other traditions: people have fond memories of observing them with their parents and want to pass them on to their own offspring.

As diverse as these dishes are, they all involve an optimistic and democratic view of good fortune. Fish and noodles, bread and apples, beans and greens appear regularly on Chinese, Jewish and Southern tables. They are neither expensive nor exotic, suggesting that luck is not something expensive to buy or hard to seek. These foods are rather ordinary, but imbued with benevolent meaning when eaten at the right time and in the right frame of mind. Good fortune, they suggest, lies all around and is always at hand.

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “More fish in the sea”

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