Happy New Year! If Santa came up short last week and didn't bring what you asked for, I hope that 2014 delivers. And if you're one of the lucky ones who got everything they wanted, I'm happy for you and wish you continued blessings.
That's what I love about New Year's Day. Regardless of my state of mind the day before, the first day of the new year is always full of hope and optimism. Yesterday was for reflection; today is all about potential.
And food. That's another thing I love about New Year's Day. My Japanese and Okinawan ancestry demands that I eat certain dishes for good luck in the coming year. The annual feast satisfies not only my taste buds, but my craving for ritual and tradition.
First and foremost is ozoni, or mochi soup. Depending on which region of Japan your family hails from, the soup stock may be chicken, fish, or even miso; our family uses baby clams. The broth is complemented with vegetables such as daikon (turnip) or carrots. Lotus root slices, representing the wheel of life, are often included. Mizuna, a Japanese green, is a must, as is the mochi, dropped into individual bowls before serving. Eating ozoni for New Year's breakfast ensures strength for the coming year. As a child, I struggled to swallow the hot, sticky globs of mochi, but I always finished it off. I was afraid not to.
Another favorite is kuromame, a sweet side dish of simmered black beans with chestnuts and konbu seaweed. The Japanese words for the ingredients are similar to words describing various attributes, and so the beans stand for hard work and good health, the chestnuts represent prosperity, and konbu is associated with joy. I've heard people say you should eat one bean for each year of your life; I was always instructed to eat an odd number, like seven or nine. Thirteen being my lucky number (I was born on a Friday the 13th), that's how many I eat each year. At the first sitting. I usually go back for a couple more servings.
Kobumaki, little rolls of gobo (burdock root) and konbu, are also very special. The gobo represents long life and perseverance; with the joyful konbu wrapped around and tied with strips of kanpyo squash, they resemble scrolls, which were an important part of festive occasions. In kobumaki, we can also appreciate the care and diligence it takes to prepare the dish, as well as the neatness and completeness signified in its presentation.
Those are a few of the traditional Japanese new year foods that I look forward to each year. I've also adopted some personal customary favorites from other cultures, like Chinese cake noodle, Okinawan shoyu pork, squid luau and kalua pig. And pork rinds. My father loved pork rinds and got me hooked at an early age. I remember he received a big bag of homemade chicharron from a Filipino friend one year, and we ate the whole bag ourselves, in one sitting. As the Okinawans say, every part of a pig can be eaten, except for its hooves and its oink.
Recently, I learned of the Mexican custom of eating a grape with each stroke of midnight, making a wish with each one. A variation says that each grape represents a month in the coming year, and a sour or bitter grape means less fortune in that month. That's not necessarily bad luck; it's more of a caution to be especially attentive.
I think I'll add that grape thing to my annual routine. It goes well with the Asian belief that round fruits are good luck. And I like the idea of pondering the future through ritual eating. As I said earlier, New Year's Day is all about potential. And food. May there be plenty of both for all of us, today and throughout the coming year.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.