On the first morning of each year, my mom cooks ozōni. This soup, only eaten on New Year’s Day in Japan, has regional variations. But our family’s version was simple: sliced shiitake mushrooms, komatsuna greens, aburaage (twice-fried tofu) and grilled mochi floating in clear broth.
Light but nourishing, it always felt like the perfect first meal of the year. As I got older, I found it also curative for a stomach upset from a night of drinking. No New Year’s Day feels complete without it.
New Year’s is an important celebration in many cultures — a time to reflect on a year well spent, celebrate, and plan goals for next. Most cultures have their own versions of ozōni — dishes as important to the holiday as counting down the seconds to midnight or setting resolutions for the next year.
I asked six Seattle-area chefs from different cultures what they eat on New Year’s. They told me about New Year’s dishes ranging from deviled eggs and black-eyed peas to tamales and Turkish tripe soup — and the rich cultural stories behind why they eat these things.
(Note: Many Seattle-area chefs celebrate the Lunar New Year instead of the one on the Gregorian calendar. But for the purposes of this story we chose to focus on those who celebrate the upcoming Gregorian calendar New Year.)
For Trey Lamont, New Year’s means beans: specifically, black-eyed peas, and rice and peas — a Caribbean dish of rice and red beans cooked with coconut milk and spices like cumin, thyme and allspice.
Lamont’s lineage, on his father’s side, leads back to Senegal. That’s where his ancestors lived before moving to the Caribbean, becoming enslaved there and winding up in the American South. He says most people of the West African diaspora eat beans on New Year’s.
“The bean represents new life, right? Because it’s a seed, and if you put it in the ground, it sprouts and grows,” Lamont says.
He has fond childhood memories of eating black-eyed peas, which originated in West Africa, with his father and grandmother each New Year’s. Now, Lamont serves black-eyed peas with chicken and andouille sausage on Jerk Shack’s New Year’s Eve menu (he serves rice and peas all year).
At home on New Year’s Day, he continues the tradition with his wife and kids.
“It makes me feel good to be able to pass something down to the next generation that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Lamont also wants his children to stay connected to their West African heritage.
“There’s not many cultural foods that African Americans (eat) that predate slavery,” he says. “These were the things that they were not able to stamp out.”
When Shota Nakajima was training under famed chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto in Osaka as a young chef, December was the hardest month of the year. The cooks at the Michelin-starred restaurant were busy making their osechi-ryōri (New Year’s food served in stackable boxes, like elaborate bento) which sold for $1,000 each. The restaurant’s osechi was like a jewel box, filled with more than 100 multicolored sweet and savory dishes, many of which were extremely labor-intensive. To make the candied chestnuts, for example, Nakajima had to gently brush each with a toothbrush to remove the inner skin without breaking the fragile nut and ruining its appearance.
In Japan, you’re not supposed to work on New Year’s Day. So in the last days of December, chefs and home cooks make osechi — salty and sweet dishes that keep at room temperature — to snack on in the new year.
When Nakajima moved back to Seattle, he kept making osechi. His family’s version has around 40 elements. Most of the dishes have special meanings, often riffing off puns based on their names: kuromame (black beans in syrup) for hard work, tazukuri (candied dried anchovies) for a bountiful harvest, red and white kamaboko fish cakes (the red to ward away evil spirits, the white for purity.)
On most New Year’s Days, Nakajima drinks sake, eats osechi and prepares mochi in a variety of ways. He grills the soft dough, brushes it with soy sauce and wraps it in crunchy nori; he dusts it with kinako (roasted soybean flour) and drizzles it with black sugar syrup; he puts it in oshiruko (sweet red bean soup), and of course, in ozōni, which in his family, is made with chicken as well as vegetables.
Nakajima’s parents are out of town this year, so he’s not making a full osechi, but without certain foods, New Year’s just isn’t New Year’s.
“There’s just no way I’m not going to eat mochi on New Year’s Day,” Nakajima says.
Mwana Moyo would spend the evenings on New Year’s Eve having a big picnic on the beach while growing up in Zanzibar, an archipelago and autonomous region in Tanzania off the east coast of Africa.
There was usually lots of fried fish and other seafood, like octopus, squid and crab, and always a pile of pilau — rice cooked with broth and some kind of meat, usually beef.
“While growing up, my mom and grandma cooked (pilau) on holidays,” Mwana says.
Earlier in the day, she’d drink chai and eat cookies and cake with her family. And after an evening at the beach, she’d watch fireworks.
Once Mwana moved to Seattle, the beach was a little too cold, and the sunset, a little too early, for a New Year’s Eve beach hangout. But she still makes the same foods for her family.
Güldal is the chef behind Hamdi, one of the summer’s hottest pop-ups, which currently serves kebab, kokoreç sandwiches and other Turkish dishes at Fair Isle Brewing in Ballard every Sunday. instagram.com/hamdiseattle
Growing up in Istanbul, Berk Güldal started New Year’s Eve with a big meal for friends and family. The table was loaded with a half-dozen mezzes like ksir (a bulgur salad) and çerkez tavugu (a chicken spread his family only made on holidays), a big salad and a roasted turkey.
The meal would start at around 7 p.m. and last for hours. He ate very slowly.
“It sometimes even goes to the New Year if the conversations are really good,” he says.
After dinner, he’d drink raki (grape alcohol made with anise) with friends until 4 or 5 a.m., when the celebrations ended with a tripe soup that’s supposed to help with the next day’s hangover.
Since Güldal moved to the U.S. to work in Michelin-starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and SingleThread Farm restaurant, he’s spent most New Year’s Eves working in a kitchen.
Last year, though, he had a break because of the pandemic and ate a dry-aged duck with his partner, Katrina Schult. This year, he’ll celebrate with another meal with Schult, accompanied with plenty of raki, of course.
Lane is the chef and part-owner of Spinasse, a Capitol Hill fine dining restaurant focused on the cuisine of Italy’s Piedmont region. spinasse.com
Like Güldal, Stuart Lane has spent many New Year’s Eves in a kitchen. He now finishes each year working with his staff at Spinasse.
While working at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Stuart would start work at 9 a.m. on Dec. 31 and clock out past 2 a.m.
“Our busiest time of year is that time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve,” Lane says.
Besides being busy, making complex specials for the holiday, including many new dishes every year, is stressful.
So Lane is always exhausted on New Year’s Day. He says he celebrates by “doing as little as possible.”
But Lane always makes the time to prepare deviled eggs, which he ate on every New Year’s growing up in Edmonds, a family tradition he’s continuing with his 2-year-old daughter. Eggs, he says, represent a new start in Italy. (Lane’s mother is half-Sicilian.)
At Spinasse this year, he’s serving up a six-course meal rich with symbolism. It will start, auspiciously, with a free lentil dish. (In Italy, lentils, which look like coins, are supposed to call in wealth for the next year.) And one of the choices for the third course is red silk handkerchief pasta with braised guinea hen and white truffles. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is good luck.
Even though New Year’s Eve is busy at upscale Italian restaurants, the kitchen staff often finds brief moments of celebration. When he was working in Italy, Lane remembers a chef bringing the kitchen to a standstill — while customers waited for dessert — so that the staff could toast glasses of prosecco to celebrate the end of the year.
Osbaldo Hernandez celebrates New Year’s Eve with a tamalada, a tamale-making party. Since he and his husband, Dennis Ramey, opened Frelard Tamales in 2018, most days of his life kind of feel like a tamalada.
But a New Year’s Eve tamalada is special. When Hernandez was growing up in Jalisco, Mexico, a big group of family and friends would get together early in the morning of Dec. 31 to get the party started. The moms and grandmas made the fillings. Kids mixed the masa. Then they’d work together to assemble them and wrap the tamales in corn husks while drinking ponche (warm, alcohol-free fruit punch brewed with sugar and cinnamon.) Once the tamales finished steaming, everybody ate them with pozole.
Tamales and pozole aren’t dishes specific to New Year’s, per se, but they are both celebratory foods popular in the winter.
“Mexicans call winter tamale season,” Hernandez says. Pozole has been a festive dish in Mexico since the time of the Aztecs, to whom maize was a sacred plant.
Hernandez is hosting this year’s New Year’s Eve tamalada. He’ll bring home tamales from his restaurant. But when Frelard Tamales closes at 2 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and the main cooks (his parents) come home, they’ll show up to warm ponche and pozole steaming on the stove.
Correction: Mwana Moyo is from Tanzania. A previous version of this story misstated her hometown as Tasmania.