Food, Identity, and the New Year

The new year is right around the corner, and in America, many celebrate with a bottle of champagne, party hats, and a kiss at midnight. However, in many cultures and countries, new year celebrations are all about spending time with family to feast on traditional foods to start the year off right. These customary meals are designed to bring in luck, health, and happiness before and after the clock strikes twelve.

For Japanese Americans, there is a mix of traditions and foods that celebrate the new year. Over at, in an article entitled Of Food and Identity: My Grandmother’s New Years, a fourth-generation Japanese American thinks about spending the holiday with his grandmother as a way to draw his family together and to preserve their cultural identities. Here’s an excerpt from the piece.

For as long as I can remember, New Years was exciting not just because of the delicious food I’d get to eat, but because it was one of the only times I truly felt Japanese. As a fourth generation Japanese American who grew up in a predominantly non-Asian community, I rarely had the opportunity to eat Japanese food, much less experience the culture. However, New Years was one of the few times my family and I could grow closer to our heritage, if only for a moment.

My grandmother’s preparations always began with a trip to our local Japanese market, as she made it a point to cook as many of the traditional foods as possible, rather than settling for a pre-made sushi or bento set. Walking up and down the aisles, I became acquainted with a host of Japanese ingredients that I would rarely if ever see otherwise. Bags of dried shiitake mushrooms, furry sato imo potatoes, and long stalks of gobo went into the cart, along with fish roe, kamaboko, and pale, oblong lotus roots, to name a few.

Step two was always the sashimi. Though not technically a traditional New Years ingredient, sashimi had somehow made its way into the workings of my grandmother’s New Years and was now an indispensable part of the feast to come. I distinctly remember early mornings in her car, still half asleep, heading downtown to Pacific Fresh Fish on 6thStreet to pick up cuts of tuna, hamachi (yellowtail), and tako (octopus) for sashimi. Once back home, the fish went into the fridge while the rest of the preparations got underway.

You can read the whole article at Discover Nikkei is a website that celebrates cultural diversity and explores both global and local identities. The project connects generations and communities by sharing stories and perspectives of the Nikkei, people of Japanese descent who have migrated and settled throughout the world.

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