Many of us will be gathering with family and friends this Thanksgiving for reunions and big meals. When I was growing up as a kid in the Midwest, we learned that the holiday is always celebrated with a whole roast turkey, mashed potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie. And while you may be reconsidering the elementary school stories about the holiday’s origins, chances are that it’s still an occasion to get together with loved ones we haven’t seen in a while and to care for each other by making our favorite home cooked foods. And in addition to (or instead of) turkey and stuffing, many Asian American families fill the table with flavors from our cultures and experiences. You know… the countertops lined with aluminum trays of lumpia or charbroiled kalbi or tandoori chicken instead of a giant bird.
We asked some Asian American filmmakers, food writers, and chefs to find out what they are dishing up for the holiday. Read on to be inspired, then show us what you’re cooking by posting your photos or videos on social media using the hashtag #AsianAmericanFeast.
Sesame Oil Sticky Rice
For my family, that means we always serve sweet potatoes, which are national symbol of Taiwan and were a staple food for my forebears through hard times when rice wasn’t accessible. In addition to the sourdough stuffing, my mom always makes sesame oil sticky rice, and I also love serving seasonal Asian produce, such as shiitake mushrooms or kabocha squash.
To get us started, here’s my recipe for sesame oil sticky rice, otherwise known as yu fan in Mandarin or iû png in Taiwanese Hokkien. It can be steamed in a rice cooker or (my favorite) stuffed in the turkey to soak up all the juices.
Chef Tu David Phu’s Lemongrass Turkey
One thing I hear often from my Asian American friends is that they don’t like turkey. It’s too big, it’s too dry, it’s too bland. Well… may I suggest that perhaps you need to try a different technique of cooking it? We turned to Top Chef and Michelin-starred restaurant alum (featured in our Storytellers series) Chef Tu David Phu, who supported himself through culinary school by working as a butcher. Chef Tu shares his recipe for turkey, inspired by different memories from his lived experiences and two different role models in his life.
“Hopefully, when you try my recipe, you won’t just think, ‘Mmm… it’s good!” But instead, be inspired to understand that food isn’t just food. If you pay attention to the details, you can find a beautiful story of the human experience.
This recipe can be broken into two parts inspired by these specific moments in my life.”
Part 1: Spatchcock turkey
I was a butcher’s apprentice for David Samlijan of @baronsmeats when I was 18. And come turkey season, we would de-bone and process A LOT of turkey. David wasn’t just my boss but became a lifelong mentor in my entrepreneurial endeavors. But most importantly, I asserted in myself that hard work and honesty do pay off.
Part 2: Marinade
My father is a man of few words. Like most Vietnamese men of his generation, they’ve suffered from the unspeakable traumas of war. However, his most significant moment as a father was when he was cooking. Specifically roasting and barbecuing meats with his own mother’s sauce. The recipe calls for lemongrass, oyster sauce, hoisin, sesame, garlic, scallions, and other ingredients I can’t figure out. When appropriately executed, his mother sauce is the ultimate flavor enhancer and meat tenderizer for all meats. Trust me; I’ve tested it. Given my 20 years of professional cooking, I am still trying to replicate it. But I think I’m pretty close.
Full recipe at Chef Tu’s website
Pooja Makhijani’s Vegetable Tart
Like all of her family’s meals, Thanksgiving dinner is always meat-free for New Jersey based writer and editor (and baker extraordinaire) Pooja Makhijani.
“Our meal is always vegetarian and always inspired by the ingredients of the moment, since my mother is an avid gardener and we tend to eat locally and seasonally year-round. So: celery, brussels sprouts, beets, sweet potatoes, squashes, apples, aliums, etc. We never make the same meal twice. Our meal isn’t cultural (unless you consider New Jersey a culture!); rather, it celebrates the values and rhythms of our lives.
In 2020, I made a vegetable tart (heirloom carrot, zucchini, yellow squash, pesto, ricotta, thyme, store bought all-butter puff pastry). The carrots, basil (for the pesto) and thyme all have roots in the
Pallavi Somusetty’s Cranberry Chutney
CAAM Fellow and Telugu American documentary filmmaker and storyteller Pallavi Somusetty says that on Thanksgiving, her mom and grandmother always prepare cranberry chutney scented with urid dhal, cumin, mustard and chilies.
“When we were little, my vegetarian mom would make us a gigantic turkey stuffed with fried rice, with a generous side of cranberry pachadi (chutney). She improvised a recipe she got from her mom, who recently celebrated her 92nd birthday but no longer cooks due to dementia. As I get older, and maybe also because I’m directing a doc about the unseen labor of powerful aunties in my community, I find so much comfort, pleasure, and stability in my family’s recipes. And what holds a family together more than food? It is the ultimate expression of our aunties’ love.”
Lisa Lee Herrick’s Pickled Mustard Greens
Hmong American food writer Lisa Lee Herrick reflects on the pickled mustard greens that are always on her family’s dinner table, including on Thanksgiving.
“Pickled mustard greens (zaub qaub) are an ever-present side dish to many meals in my Hmong family: the swamp bamboo mustard is grown by my aunt, in her backyard garden, and harvested by the armful in the summer; and pickled by my mother with softneck garlic, salt, distilled water, glutinous rice, and her own homegrown Thai bird chili peppers. The crunchy pickles cut through any rich and fatty dish with their tart and spicy bite. These pickles, eaten with rice, remind us of our family’s humble roots in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand; we continue to enjoy them as reminders of our ancestral journeys, cultural heritage, and history as political refugees.”
Gil Asakawa’s Gravy on Rice
Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! A Tasty History of Japanese Food in America author Gil Asakawa says that Thanksgiving is all about the gravy. So much so that he often replaces the mashed potatoes with another fluffy white comfort food.
“Let’s face it, the reason we love mashed potatoes with gravy is because the mound of potatoes with the crater is merely a carrying system for gravy. But for AAPIs, rice with gravy is even better than mashed potatoes — the kernels of rice are magical when they’re thoroughly coated with a good umami-blasted turkey gravy. It’s right up there with raw eggs and soy sauce drizzled on hot rice, or natto mixed in with rice. Rice with gravy makes Thanksgiving worth being thankful for.”
Melissa Hung’s Turkey Jook
Don’t forget the leftovers! Writer and Hyphen Magazine founding editor Melissa Hung agrees with me that it’s not Thanksgiving without turning the turkey carcass into soup… or better yet– a belly and heart-warming rice porridge! Melissa says:
“After Thanksgiving, I shred leftover turkey meat to use as a topping on jook. A bowl of jook is the ultimate comfort food, warm and easy on the stomach. After the meat is gone, I save the bones, too, to make a batch of turkey jook.”
What’s on your Thanksgiving table? I’m sure many of you out there have more food traditions around this holiday and we want to hear from you!