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New Year food worldwide: 'Cotechino' pork sausage and lentils for prosperity in Italy

Luca Sambari, 50, the chef and owner of traditional Italian restaurant "La Cantinetta," smiles as he shows of Italian New Year's cuisine at his restaurant in Osaka's Nishi Ward, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

OSAKA -- In Italy, they say, "Natale con i tuoi, Capodanno con chi vuoi": Christmas with family and New Year's with the people you want to spend it with. Italians bring in the New Year rambunctiously and surrounded by luxurious foods, and like Japan, struggle to figure out what to do with leftovers!

In Italy, Christmas is associated with religion, and is usually spent in the company of family. On the other hand, Italians are free to choose the company they keep for New Year's, and the most common practice is to greet the turn of the calendar to Jan. 1 in large numbers with lots of merrymaking.

This information came from Luca Sambari, 50, the chef and owner of "La Cantinetta," a restaurant in Nishi Ward in the city of Osaka in western Japan where customers can enjoy traditional Italian fare. Sambari hails from the central Italian region of Tuscany, and came to Japan in 2004, but recalls his first New Year's celebrations in Japan as "quiet and rather lonely."

Italian New Year is celebrated joyously in a large group while eating the traditional "cenone" meal. (Photo courtesy of Mihoko Nakai's friend Silvia Lazzerini)

On New Year's Eve, he said, Italians prepare a grand dinner called "cenone." Getting a head-start at 9 p.m., gathered friends eat and drink until the clock strikes 12. They dance, play a bingo-like game called "La Tombola," count down the seconds until the New Year, and engage in other celebratory activities. And when the clock strikes midnight, the sounds of fireworks and firecrackers echo outside.

"People go home just before dawn," said Sambari, adding jokingly, "Usually people have a light lunch on Jan. 1 due to being hung over or eating too much the night before."

Sambari prepared some of the cenone dishes that Italians cannot welcome the New Year without. The most representative is cotechino and lentils. Cotechino is a sausage made from pig intestine stuffed with minced pork, spices and even the skin of the animal. The same mix stuffed into pig trotters is called "zampone," and both are eaten with boiled lentils. Because of their shape, lentils are thought to resemble coins, and are considered to symbolize wealth. It is believed that the more you eat on New Year's Eve, the more money you will make during the coming year. The round and fat pig from which the sausage is made also represents prosperity and abundance.

The boiled lentils are easy to cook, and they are a familiar dish in many households. Compared to Japanese sausages, cotechino has a richer, more savory flavor, while the lentils have a simple taste.

Fried strips of eel eaten in some regions of Italy on New Year's, is seen at La Cantinetta, in Osaka's Nishi Ward, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

There are also places in Italy where the locals eat sliced, fried eels. It is even said that eels with a lot of fat are a sign of affluence. "When I had fried eel in Japan, it was delicious. It was prepared even better than in Italy," said Sambari. When topping Sambari's fried eels with lemon juice before taking a bite, it was hard to grow tired of the juicy flavor -- it was as good as Japanese grilled eel.

Along with the main dishes, cured ham, olives, chicken liver pate and other starters are also served with pasta. Among the lineup is a dish that was passed on to Peru and introduced in the first part of the New Year food series: "panettone." The traditional sweet bread combines raisins, eggs, sugar and other ingredients with flour, and lets the dough rise with natural yeast before being baked. "When you break one open, the smell of the dried fruit fills the room," said Sambari.

The dessert bread "panettone," which Italians receive during Christmas and worry about how to finish at the end of the holidays, is seen at La Cantinetta, in Osaka's Nishi Ward, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

"During Christmas, you are gifted a lot of panettone from many people. Just like Japanese wonder how they will eat all the leftover rice cakes after New Year's, Italians consider how to eat all the leftover panettone when the New Year season is over," explained Mihoko Nakai, 59. Nakai spent close to 40 years from the time she was very young in Milan, in northern Italy. She now works as an instructor at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (Italian Institute of Culture) Osaka, in the city's Kita Ward.

When she was a child, there was a custom that when the clock struck midnight on New Year's, everyone would open their windows and throw out old utensils, furniture and other items. "It is to drive out bad things with loud noises," she explained. "It was interesting to watch, but perhaps because of how dangerous it was, it gradually went out of practice."

"There always seems to be something missing from the subdued celebrations in Japan, but going out to temples or shrines to make your first prayers of the year is exciting and fun," added Nakai, and laughed, "How about ringing in the new year in Italy, and spending New Year's Day in Japan?"

(Japanese original by Yuko Murase, Osaka Cultural News Department)

*Main ingredients for cotechino with lentils (serves four): 1 cotechino sausage; 300 grams dried lentils; 1 each celery and carrot; 1 onion; 2 bay leaves; 2 sprigs each of rosemary and sage; 1 clove garlic; olive oil, salt and pepper to taste; small amount of tomato paste

1. Use a toothpick or other utensil to poke several holes in the cotechino and boil on low heat for roughly an hour.

2. Put olive oil and garlic in a separate pot and heat, and lightly saute it with finely chopped celery, carrot and onion. Throw in baby leaves, rosemary and sage bundled with a rope.

"Cotechino" sausage and boiled lentils over polenta, the main dish of Italian New Year, is seen at La Cantinetta, in Osaka's Nishi Ward, on Dec. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

3. Add lentils, 500 milliliters of water and tomato paste to the pan and let it boil on a low flame for 40 minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste. If the water evaporates while boiling, add more water to the pot as needed.

4. Place the boiled lentils on a plate and arrange them with round slices of cotechino. Top with olive oil to taste.

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