Crispy Hoppin' John by Valerie Erwin

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For many Pennsylvania families, New Year’s Day means chowing down on pork and sauerkraut.

Per Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, eating the combo ensures good luck for the coming year. Which is why lots of folks in Central and Southeastern Pa. endure the scent of stinky cabbage on Jan. 1, hangover be damned.

But pork and sauerkraut isn’t the only way to attract fortune. Cultures around the world each have their own lucky New Year’s dishes.

Quite a few of these are represented in Philly — and we’ve got the recipes.

In the Lowcountry South, per chef Valerie Erwin, it’s the black-eyed peas and rice pilaf known as Hoppin’ John that’s thought to bring happiness and wealth if devoured as the year begins. “We often had black-eyed peas in my family,” Erwin said, “but my mother only made Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day.”

Now general manager at The EAT Cafe in West Philly, Erwin previously ran Mt. Airy’s Geechee Girl Cafe, where she served an easier, quicker variation on the dish she remembers from her Charleston childhood (find the recipe here).

When chef Sylva Senat of Maison 208 and Baby Buns was growing up, his family often followed the Haitian tradition to mark the new beginning by breakfasting on soup joumou (recipe).

Soup Joumou, also known as Haiti’s ‘soup of independence’ Credit: Melissa Delzlo / Flickr Creative Commons

The thick pumpkin broth enriched by smoked ham hock and noodles is also known as “the soup of independence” — once a dish reserved for imperial masters, it was eaten to celebrate the country’s liberation on Jan. 1, 1804. It’s made differently in each household, Senat said, “so if you go to someone’s house [to celebrate] you bring them soup!”

A sweet dish is favored on New Year’s Day in Cyprus, according to chef Konstantinos Pitsillides of Kanella Grill and Kanella South.

The people of his native Mediterranean island celebrate with the cake known as Vasilopita, aka St. Basil’s Cake (recipe). Pitsillides noted that the dish is known by a different name by the country’s nonreligious population, who eschew the “St. Basil” reference and refer to it with a term that highlights its place on the calendar: chronopita, which translates as “time cake.”

Before or right after the cake is baked, a coin is slipped into it. “At midnight, the sign of the cross is carved with a knife across the cake,” Pitsillides said. “A piece is sliced for each member of the family and any visitors present.” The slices are then handed out in order of age, youngest to oldest, and whoever finds the trinket will get extra luck in the year ahead.

Vasilopita, aka St. Basil’s Cake Credit: Restaurante Kalalde / Flickr Creative Commons

In Mexico, things are a bit simpler, said chef Adan Trinidad of Jose Pistola’s, Sancho Pistola’s and Pistola’s Del Sur.

“We don’t have a specific dish,” he explained, “but we have the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight.” A wish is made for the wellbeing of self or family as each piece of fruit is popped in the mouth.

The grape custom is thought to have originated in Spain, which explains why it’s also followed in the Dominican Republic.

That’s just one of many Dominican New Year’s rituals that include food, per Ray Nunez, chef at Spanish Island in Mayfair. One that he makes at his Caribbean restaurant is pastelon de platano maduros — a lasagna-like casserole that uses plantains in place of noodles (recipe). Another tradition, Nunez said, is “right after midnight, take an empty suitcase and carry it quickly around the block.” Do that, superstition dictates, and all your wishes for travel in the coming year will come true.

Several cultures in Asia celebrate the new year not according to the Gregorian calendar, but on what’s known as the Lunar New Year (or Chinese New Year). The date is different, but the idea of a good luck dish is the same.

At Sate Kampar on East Passyunk, Ange Branca offers the traditional Malaysian New Year’s salad called Yee Sang or YuSheng (recipe).

18-ingredient Yee Sang at Sate Kampar Credit: Sate Kampar

The 13-ingredient dish is considered a “prosperity salad,” with each part representing a different good luck wish. As the salad is assembled, Branca said, people recite the wish that goes with each — “Peace and safety,” “Wealth and prosperity,” etc. — and toss the bowl with chopsticks. Legend has it that the higher one tosses, the higher their achievements in the coming year will be.

Peter Hwang, owner of Southgate in Rittenhouse, said many Korean-Americans do celebrate on Jan. 1 instead of the more traditional Lunar New Year date. Even if so, they can pay homage to their heritage by cooking the good luck dish known as dduk guk (egg, beef and rice cake soup).

“Korean grandmothers don’t like to give out their secrets,” Hwang said when asked for the recipe, “and they use taste and experience rather than measurements in cooking.”

Hwang provided useful general instructions, and a more exact ingredient list was proffered by chef Chris Cho of Seorabol in Olney (recipe). Cho also noted that in addition to bringing fortune, “we also believe that when we eat this dish we officially get a year older.”

Hmm, getting older — is that good luck or not? Either way, cheers to 2018!

Dduk guk, Korean rice cake soup Credit: Peter Hwang, Southgate

Good luck New Year’s recipes

Hoppin’ John, Lowcountry — Valerie Erwin (The EAT Cafe)

Soup Joumo, Haiti — Sylva Senat (Maison 208)

Vasilopita, Cyprus — Konstantinos Pitsillides (Kanella)

Pastelon de Platanos Maduro, Dominican Republic — Ray Nunez (Spanish Island)

Yee Sang, Malaysia — Ange Branca (Sate Kampar)

Ddukguk, Korea — Chris Cho (Seorabol)

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...