For immigrants, cultural values infuse the food at Thanksgiving

Turkey with sticky rice stuffing
A possible Asian-influenced Thanksgiving entree -- roast turkey with sticky rice stuffing. (Photo by Flickr user Tiffany)

By Jenny Zhang

(Additional reporting by Ashesha Mehrotra, Shanshan Wang and Yunfei Zhao)

While families across the U.S. grapple with the usual culinary concerns – to brine or not to brine? Stuffing or dressing? Rolls or biscuits? – in preparation for Thanksgiving, a whole other slew of questions can be asked of American immigrant households celebrating the holiday tomorrow.

Is the turkey served before or after the lasagna?

How sweet should the baklava be?

Does turkey pair better with glutinous rice or hot pot?

When should the yogurt sauce be taken out of the fridge?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, the decisions that families with immigrant backgrounds make when it comes to America’s favorite feast day reveal some of the cultural values that these households assign to daily life and special occasions in the U.S.

Among those who celebrate Thanksgiving, some families enjoy food exclusive to their own cultures or mix American and ethnic cuisine, while others seize the opportunity to stuff themselves with only traditional T-Day dishes once a year.

“We do all of it the American way,” said Anna Anderson, who came to Chicago from Poland eight years ago.

Although her homeland’s culture, traditions and language play a big part in her family’s life here, she said, they save the Polish food for Christmas and instead enjoy the same things as longer-term Americans for Thanksgiving – turkey, side dishes and a festive time with relatives.

Other immigrants celebrate Thanksgiving the traditional way for the sake of their kids, who were born and raised in the U.S.

Speaking of her Polish parents’ decision to serve only American food for Thanksgiving, Polish Museum of America employee Katarzyna Dalutowski said, “I think this had to do more with the fact that they had children, and their kids would go to school and hear about things from school, and parents would feel obligated to give their kids the Thanksgiving experience.”

Similar reasons lay behind Mexican immigrant Agustin Bahena’s decision to celebrate Thanksgiving the American way with his children, who are U.S. citizens.

“Our kids go to schools and they find out all these traditions here, and we must go with them,” said Bahena, the manager of Mexican-Italian restaurant Fogata Village in Pilsen. “Because my kids are here, so I am with them.”

Other immigrant families blend their own cultural cuisines with American dishes such as turkey, which they consider essential to the idea of Thanksgiving.

“Turkey is always there,” said Frank Di Piero, a diner owner and third-generation Italian- American whose wife is from Italy. “It’s definitely celebrated. Living in America, that’s what you do.”

Amy Tang, a Vietnamese immigrant who’s lived in the U.S. for a decade, agreed about the turkey. “Turkey is a must on Thanksgiving,” she said. “My daughter will not believe that it’s Thanksgiving if I don’t prepare turkey.”

At the same time, the inclusion of ethnic foods native to their home countries brings flavor and culture to immigrant households’ dinner tables.

Di Piero, for example, said it’s a no-brainer for his family to serve Italian soup and lasagna before the turkey, followed by other home-cooked Italian treats such as rapini (broccoli rabe), sausage and homemade wine.

Tang cooks traditional Vietnamese dishes including bánh bèo (steamed rice cake) and chao ga (chicken rice porridge) to make her mother happy and to teach her daughter more about Vietnam.

“My daughter is an American first, and I’m okay with that,” she said. “Still, as a mother, it is my duty to tell her about our heritage. We can never forget where we come from.”

Albanian-born Chicago resident Esmeralda Muli agrees. “I accept American traditions, my daughters do – but still, I have to keep the Albanian in me alive,” she said.

Her Thanksgiving dinner menu – turkey, mashed potatoes, cheese pies, rice, Albanian salad and plain yogurt – is a good fusion of cultures that appeals to her American daughters as well as her Albanian relatives, she said.

Thien Ly, the manager of Vietnamese restaurant Tank Noodle, similarly blends cultures in his home’s Thanksgiving meal, which he calls “a combination of the West and the East.” Turkey, stuffing and other sides are obviously influenced by American traditions, he said, but hot pot and noodles are additions stemming from his Asian heritage.

“We’re just adding a little bit of our own cultural differences,” Ly said.

Despite the common desire to mix cultural and American cuisine for Thanksgiving, some immigrants find it difficult to do so because they don’t know how to cook American foods like roast turkey.

Ulkar Aliyeva, who emigrated from Azerbaijan in 2011, makes rice, chicken, Azerbaijani dolma (stuffed vegetables), Turkish çoban kavurma (lamb casserole), Russian Napoleon cake and baklava for Thanksgiving.

While this is partly because of her flair for doing things her own way, she said, it’s also due to cluelessness when it comes to making turkey, even though she would like to learn how to cook the iconic staple of Thanksgiving feasts.

That lack of knowledge isn’t uncommon, according to Kelly Cheng, manager of Chinese restaurant Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, that specializes in roasting duck and other birds. She said Sun Wah has been roasting turkeys for customers each Thanksgiving for years, sometimes as many as 100 birds within three days.

“Chinese and Vietnamese people – sometimes they get free turkey from work and they don’t know how to cook it at home, so they say, ‘Can you barbecue this for me? Can you cook it like the duck?’” said Cheng.

While American turkey is often bland, she said, Sun Wah puts a spin on the traditional food by brining, salting, and spicing the meat heavily to produce a richer flavor.

Bahena of Fogata Village said his restaurant has also received orders for turkey, but while the birds are cooked with mole sauce made from three to five different kinds of red chili peppers in Mexico, most customers in the U.S. ask for traditional turkeys because Thanksgiving only comes once a year.

Although the restaurant will have some business tomorrow, Bahena said, most of it will be during lunch and pick-up times, as people want to be at home with their families on Thanksgiving.

Ultimately, that’s what Thanksgiving boils down to, according to several Chicago-area immigrants – enjoying quality time spent in good company with delicious food.

Aliyeva, who only has her husband and friends here in the U.S., said she thinks Thanksgiving is great, citing the significance of family in this holiday tradition.

“It’s a sign of respect because, even though people are really busy, they fly from different places to see their mom, their family,” she said.

Ly, who was struck by the fast pace of life in the U.S., said that Thanksgiving is a reason to slow down, come together and give thanks to all the good will that comes to us throughout the year.

“There’s no free time; we lose contact with each other a lot,” he said. “These are days that we have a chance to get together.”

A possible Asian-influenced Thanksgiving entree: roast turkey with sticky rice stuffing. (Photo by Flickr user Tiffany)