New Elements, Old Traditions

Thanksgiving Features

By Christine Dayao

Imagine pork and intestines stewed in blood served alongside the Thanksgiving turkey. Or instead of the traditional mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes seasoned with masala and paprika.

Many families celebrate Thanksgiving the traditional way: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and sweet potatoes. But this menu isn’t set in stone. Two young women and their families have taken the main elements of this American holiday and put an ethnic spin on it.

Manpreet Kaur, a junior at Baruch College, migrated to the United States from India almost 11 years ago at the age of 10. Unable to speak English, she was put in an English as a Second Language class at P.S. 54 in Queens. There in the fifth grade, she first learned about Thanksgiving.

“I remember making little turkeys and coloring them in,” she reflected.

When she went home, she told her parents about what she learned at school. “As a foreign family, we decided to cook a little meal,” she said—the first time Kaur and her family celebrated an American holiday.

Every Thanksgiving for the past decade, Kaur has sat down with her parents and two younger brothers for a holiday meal that integrates their Indian culture.

Because they don’t have a great fondness of turkey, they swap out the main dish for spicy curry chicken.

In place of mashed potatoes, they serve up roasted potatoes seasoned with masala and paprika. Rather than making the customary stuffing, the family feasts on chole bature, which Kaur describes as the Indian version of an empanada or beef patty: fried dough stuffed with peas and potatoes.

One American tradition that Kaur has picked up on is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “Even though I’m almost 21 and I didn’t grow up watching it, seeing the balloons brings out my inner child,” she said.

This year, she said she was especially excited when her childhood crush, Daniel Radcliffe, performed a number from his musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying at the parade.

But Kaur insists that the food and parade aren’t nearly as important as what the day is really about. “We don’t have Thanksgiving in India so to have a holiday where you stop to give thanks for what you have—family and friends—was a pleasant change for me,” she said.

For Nicole Caballero’s family, Thanksgiving is one of the few days throughout the year when they can bring their adopted American culture and native Filipino cuisine together. Because she said her mother has become more Americanized in her cooking, Filipino food is cooked less frequently than years past but is still cooked on special occasions.

“It’s weird but when my parents came here from the Philippines, my mom wanted to do Thanksgiving but she only knew how to cook Filipino food. I mean, isn’t it all about stuffing and potatoes?” the 24-year-old aspiring teacher said.

Caballero said her mother began cooking turkey her second year in the United States, 30 years ago. Alongside the turkey, Filipino trimmings were served. When the children came along, the tradition stuck and is still carried out decades later.

“When I was a kid, I always wondered why I couldn’t be like my friends—they had normal Thanksgivings. This is the only Thanksgiving I know, though,” she said.

Caballero said that after observing the holiday in such a unique fashion for all of her life, she embraces it now more than when she was a child. “When I have kids, this is how we’ll celebrate,” she said.

Filipino dishes such as diniguan, pancit, turon and torta join the turkey at the dining room table. “And of course you have to have rice,” she said.

Diniguan is pork and intestines stewed in blood, which gives it a near-black color. “It tastes better than it sounds, trust me,” Caballero said.

Pancit is stir-fried noodles with vegetables such as peas and carrots. Lumpia are miniature vegetable wraps similar to spring rolls. Torta is a ground beef omelet and turon is a thin piece of dough wrapped around a banana and brown sugar, which is then deep-fried.

Caballero shares a similar sentiment to Kaur about the meaning of Thanksgiving: “I love Thanksgiving but at the end of the day, it isn’t about the food. You could even eat a bag of chips, but as long as you are with your loved ones, that’s what’s important,” she said.