Tamales, rice and noodle soup: New Years foods to bring you luck in the coming year

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Eating for good luck on the cusp of the new year is a worldwide phenomenon. In the Southern United States, people eat collards and Hoppin' John to usher in wealth (get a recipe from Buxton Hall chef Elliott Moss here).

For Luis Martinez, who grew up in Santa Catarina Loxicha near Oaxaca, Mexico, the holiday tradition of making tamales was a way to celebrate the harvest, bring abundance to the growing season to follow, and pay homage to ancestral traditions. 

The corn, picked in November and then dried in the sun, would be ready to grind into masa by the end of December. That timing, dictated mainly by mother nature, helped tamales develop a reputation as a Christmas and New Year's tradition in Mesoamerica. 

Tamales made by chef Luis Martinez.

"Back home it had a lot of meaning for us," said the chef and CEO of Tequio Foods. "Especially because it celebrates the end of the season of corn and the beginning of a new year for us. We've finished the crop for this year, we're eating what we've grown, and we have to be happy and super thankful to Mother Earth for providing this food."

Tamales for prosperity

Electricity was only available three days a week in Martinez's town, which meant sometimes traditions were executed by fire and stone.

"We would have electricity Monday, Wednesday and one weekend day, but the rest of the time we had no power, so we were basically cooking with fire," said Martinez, whose family had a small coffee plantation. "The days we would have power, we would have a little molino (a household electric mill) and we would make tortillas for a week."

More:Handmade tortillas and hominy grits: Meet 3 Georgia chefs rethinking corn

When there was no electricity, his family ground corn with a metate, or slab and stone, but they'd have to work quickly so the corn didn't sour in the Mexican heat. 

Around the holidays, those tamales were made with a type of meat reserved only for special occasions: black iguana, caught in the forest and quickly fire-roasted and skinned. They would then simmer it slowly with chicken stock and vegetables. And yes, it tasted just like chicken, Martinez said.

"It becomes soft, almost like a confit-style iguana," he said. The meat would then be layered with masa, guajillo mole and enclosed in banana leaves the family would harvest themselves.

Martinez's mother would make about 100 at a time. What the extended family wouldn't eat would be covered in a leaf-lined backyard pit, which served as cool storage.

Luis Martinez prepares beef skewers over a charcoal grill.

Even though Martinez lives in the southern U.S. now, Mexico and the farmers who live there remain important to him. Martinez, who once worked as a migrant worker when he came to the U.S. on an asylum visa, recently launched Tequio Foods to import heritage Mexican ingredients.

The effort's aim is to pay fair prices and support infrastructure to help Mexican farmers live and work sustainably in their own communities. "We want to provide money and tools and a long plan to help the farmer, the person living and breathing this thing every day," Martinez said. Read more here.

Try the tradition:These Mississippi Delta tamales put a Southern twist on a Mesoamerican dish

Rice for wealth

Rice from Lee's One Fortune Farm

When Chue Lee was a girl growing up in Laos, the valleys in December would fill with the smell of cooking sweet sticky rice. The Hmong people would celebrate the new year throughout the entire month, going from village to village and parading the young people around in hopes of match-making. 

For the festivities, the women would come together to make a sweet dish of fried bananas and blossoms over traditionally prepared sticky rice.  

"Usually we'd have traditional rice mochi, we'd have new rice cooked the traditional way and, if you're wealthy, you'd have your pork and chicken and duck and cows and have a big feast and invite everyone over to join," Lee said. 

Rice symbolized wealth then, and still does to this day, said Lee, who grows rice with her husband, Tou Lee, at Lee's One Fortune Farm in Morganton, North Carolina.

Both came to the United States as refugees after the Vietnam War and still think fondly of home. 

Chue Lee picks yardlong beans at the Lee family's newest farm on a 94-acre piece of property in Morganton.

Lee said her six children and two grandchildren are Americanized, but they still ask her to prepare mochi, which she makes in a machine and serves with honey. She and her husband plan to eventually grow their own sugar cane and serve mochi the traditional way: with thick, dark, sugar cane molasses.

"They still enjoy the traditional foods because it's something they grow up eating," Lee said of her children. "For Christmas, when they come home, they say 'Where's the rice cake?'" 

Rice in the palm of Tou Lee's hand at Lee's One Fortune Farm.

Hmong elders also love to eat mochi during the winter. It's a comfort item. Lee said it reminds them of prosperity because if a Hmong family had an abundant rice season, they'd eat well through the winter.

"And the sweet sticky rice is what's preferred this time of year," she said. "When you cook the sweet sticky rice, it has the aroma of freshness, of sweetness and it reminds elders of their own home, back in the village of Laos." 

There, the aroma was synonymous with seasonal celebrations. 

"That's something I tell my kids that will never die for me," she said. "That freshness in the mountains and that smell of rice. After harvest, everyone would celebrate, and you could smell fresh rice from everywhere." 

Try the tradition:Carolina Gold rice pudding with fruit

Noodles for longevity

The Persian New Year, Nowruz, falls in March on the spring equinox. Accordingly, festive food around that time is often green and growing, packed with herbs and flavor. 

"It's really a sweet time of the year," said Louisa Shafia, a Nashville chef whose father is Iranian. "It's the biggest holiday for Iranians and for expats." Shafia is also the author of "The New Persian Kitchen."

Nowruz festivities celebrate the return of light and of life. People sprout legumes in their homes and then toss the young greens into moving water to represent fresh energy after the stagnation of winter. 

"It's about getting rid of all the stuff you don't need from last year," Shafia said. "It's very elemental and harkens back to just the essentials of human nature. It has a lot in common with Passover and Easter traditions. You clean the house from top to bottom, mend your differences and give gifts, especially to children."

Persians craft and gift Kolcha e Nowrozi, or traditional sweets. In each home, a table gets decorated with items beginning with the letter sin, or S, to usher in good luck: garlic for health, green herbs for rebirth and sumac, which represents the victory of light over dark. A live goldfish represents life.

Shafia, who sells Nowruz kits with the ingredients for ash reshteh, a Persian good luck noodle soup, adds a small marzipan goldfish to the package in the tradition of Sicilian marzipan animals. You can find the kits for shipping within the U.S. at feastbylouisa.com.

Shafia's recipe for ash reshteh is rich with caramelized onions, noodles and kashk, a rich and tart Persian yogurt. "And I put a lot of lemon juice in right before serving, so the richness gets tempered with acidity," she said. "It's really well-rounded and really satisfying, hearty and great for a still-chilly March day."

Try the tradition:Persian greens, noodle and bean soup

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com