Soba noodles, Japan
In Japanese households, families eat buckwheat soba noodles, or toshikoshi soba, at midnight on New Year's Eve to bid farewell to the year gone by and welcome the year to come. The tradition dates back to the 17th century, and the long noodles symbolize longevity and prosperity. In another custom called mochitsuki, friends and family spend the day before New Year's pounding mochi rice cakes. Sweet, glutinous rice is washed, soaked, steamed and pounded into a smooth mass. Then guests take turns pinching off pieces to make into small buns that are later eaten for dessert.
This New Year's Eve, at Manhattan Japanese restaurant En Japanese Brasserie, the chef (and willing customers) will take part in the mochitsuki. The resulting mochi will be served as dessert later in the evening. The restaurant is also serving two kaiseki menus, both featuring soba noodles as a final savory course. At midnight, they will break open a barrel of sake to welcome the New Year.
King cake, around the globe
The tradition of a New Year's cake is one that spans countless cultures. The Greeks have the Vasilopita, the French the gateau or galette des rois. Mexicans have the Rosca de Reyes and Bulgarians enjoy the banitsa.
Most of the cakes are consumed at midnight on New Year's Eve -- though some cultures cut their cake on Christmas or the Epiphany, January 6 -- and include a hidden gold coin or figure, which symbolizes a prosperous year for whomever finds it in their slice.
Cotechino con lenticchie, Italy
Italians celebrate New Year's Eve with La Festa di San Silvestro, often commencing with a traditional cotechino con lenticchie, a sausage and lentil stew that is said to bring good luck (the lentils represent money and good fortune) and, in certain households, zampone, a stuffed pig's trotter.
The meal ends with chiacchiere -- balls of fried dough that are rolled in honey and powdered sugar -- and prosecco. The dishes find their roots in Modena, but New Year's Eve feasts thrive across the country.
Pickled herring, Poland and Scandinavia
Because herring is in abundance in Poland and parts of Scandinavia, and because of their silver coloring, many in those nations eat pickled herring at the stroke of midnight to bring a year of prosperity and bounty. Some eat pickled herring in cream sauce, some have it with onions.
One special Polish New Year's Eve preparation of pickled herring, called Sledzie Marynowane, is made by soaking whole salt herrings in water for 24 hours and then layering them in a jar with onions, allspice, sugar and white vinegar. Scandinavians will often include herring in a larger midnight smorgasbord with smoked and pickled fish, pate and meatballs.
Kransekage, Denmark and Norway
Kransekage, literally wreath cake, is a cake tower composed of many concentric rings of cake layered atop one another, and they are made for New Year's Eve and other special occasions in Denmark and Norway. The cake is made using marzipan, often with a bottle of wine or Aquavit in the center and can be decorated with ornaments, flags and crackers.
Those who can't make it to Copenhagen this year for Danish treats should check out Larsen's Danish Bakery in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. They have a long-running mail-order business to accommodate kransekage lovers across the country and carefully pack each ring on the tower individually for easy assembly right before your New Year's Eve feast. A 10-ring cake goes for $86; an 18-ring cake is $150.