This is a story about Thanksgiving traditions and my hidden talent. (More on the talent later.) Thanksgiving has got to be one of the most tradition-filled (some would say burdened) holidays on the American calendar. There’s the mythology of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans at the First Thanksgiving, of course. And there are also modern food traditions which have proven themselves surprisingly beloved and tenacious. I’m talking about green bean casseroles made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Condensed Soup and sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows. And don’t forget jellied cranberry sauce, a sauce you can slice! These traditional Thanksgiving foods may not go as far back as that First Thanksgiving, but they sure have been around for a while.
Those of us who can’t trace our ancestry to the Mayflower are left to create our own Thanksgiving traditions. As a result, I think I grew up with the best Thanksgivings of anyone I know. What made this holiday so special in our house was the ever-changing, motley international crew my family hosted each year. No, I did not grow up in a diplomat family (only in my fantasies).
My parents immigrated to America as graduate students from Taiwan (my father in September, 1966, and my mother in February, 1967). When I was a child, they worked as chemists at a national research laboratory on Long Island. Their institution attracted scientists from around the world, who would come to work alongside their American-based (if not American-born) colleagues for any time from weeks, to months or even years. The diverse group of people who visited was even more striking for the fact that our community was a semi-rural small town, where my family alone provided the diversity. (Let’s just say that it was easy to pick me and my brother out in school pictures.)
While Thanksgiving at our house was not necessarily traditional, we did embrace its ideal of bringing together people from different backgrounds for friendship and mutual understanding. We also embraced the turkey. It took its rightful place as the centerpiece of the meal, complete with the ritual carving done by my father with an electric knife given to my parents on their wedding in 1967. The same knife is still being used to this day for this purpose, just once a year. When my husband, then suitor, was in medical school, my father decided the knife would have another purpose– the Test. “Now that you’ve done surgery, why don’t you carve the turkey.”
We served the turkey, but did not love it. Chinese cuisine, which presents meat more as an accent than the main event, has no place for such a big bird. You’d also be hard-pressed to find an oven in a Chinese kitchen. Still, it was understood that Thanksgiving required a turkey, so there it was. Ours was basted with a soy sauce and garlic marinade, but otherwise resembled the turkeys “everyone else” had. This is where the similarities ended.
Surrounding the turkey on the table would be endless plates of other dishes. This would include stir-fried greens and several other Chinese dishes that my parents actually enjoyed eating, unlike the turkey. We’d also have two types of stuffing, an American bread-based version, usually Stove Top. The homemade stuffing would be the Chinese version, made of sticky rice, shitake mushrooms and Chinese sausage. That was my family’s contribution.
The fun really began with the various pot luck offerings our international guests would bring to share. It wasn’t necessarily food of their own cultures, but it was never American, either. For example, I remember the deep-fried, but somehow light as air, Swedish rosettes brought by Rose, who hailed from Manila but was married to a Swede. The first samosas I tasted came from Sakura, who herself had learned how to make them from an Indian visitor in Tokyo. Srinual, a native of Bangkok, not Tuscany, made a vinegary antipasto. And somehow, it all tasted great together. In retrospect, I don’t think we ever had green bean casseroles or yams topped with marshmallows, but at the time, nobody noticed.
We’d sit around the table or wherever there was space, and share food and stories. The stories were fascinating not only for their content, but the language in which they were delivered. Because the crowd was so diverse, everyone spoke in English, the universal language, but in a wild variety of accents. Most of the time people understood one another, or at least, enough. The nights would be filled with fascinating tales of far-away lands, and lots of laughter.
This is where my hidden talent became important. You see, I can understand foreign-accented English, from almost any origin. I do not mean this in any disparaging way. I am proud of this skill, because it is extremely useful. I am the person who ends the discomfort that arises when two people, ostensibly speaking the same language, ask each other to repeat what the other said over and over, gaining no more clarity each time. I “translate.” My talent may not be as impressive as being fluent in several foreign languages, but I think it’s possibly even more helpful. Since Esperanto never really took off, most of the world has given in to learning English to speak to one another, with variable success.
As an adult, I’ve chosen to live in a much larger, much more culturally diverse city. I don’t have to look far to engage with an international crowd. I’ve also managed to assemble a virtual UN delegation in my own family– we now represent the United States, Taiwan, Trinidad, China and Korea in just my own and my brother’s families. This makes for fantastic meals, with condiments ranging from kimchi to Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce. And “stew” in our homes can mean anything from a Trindadian curry to Korean bulgogi to Taiwanese beef noodle soup. And while our accents may range from Chinglish to Korean to Trinidadian to “I don’t have an accent” and even a bit of Long Islandese and California girl thrown into the mix, fear not. Remember, I can understand anyone’s English. I’ll translate.
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Chinese Sausage and Sticky Rice Stuffing
This is the stuffing is one of the sides I look forward to on Thanksgiving. Besides the toothsomeness of the sticky rice, it has the richness of mushrooms and chestnuts, the fragrance of rice wine, and the slightly sweet succulence of the Chinese sausage. The fried shallot garnish adds flavor and crunch, much like the fried onions on that other Thanksgiving staple, the green bean casserole. You can eat this rice stuffing on its own, but it is truly amazing when it’s been cooked in the turkey.
Special note: this rice needs to be soaked for several hours or even overnight, so prepare in advance.
Makes about 8 cups, enough to stuff a medium sized turkey, and then some.
3 cups sticky rice (also known as glutinous or sweet rice)
1 1/2 cups (about 8) dried Chinese black or shitake mushrooms
3 chinese sausages, diced
1 cup roasted chestnuts (in Asian markets, you can buy roasted and peeled chestnuts in a foil bag)
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp ginger, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/3 cup Chinese rice wine (may substitute dry sherry)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp Chinese vegetarian stir fry sauce or oyster sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 cups chicken or turkey broth
garnishes: chopped scallions and Chinese fried shallots (available in Asian markets)
1. Soak rice in cold water, about an inch more than enough to cover. Allow to soak for at least six hours or overnight.
2. While rice is soaking, soak mushrooms in a separate bowl in very warm water for at least half and hour. When softened, remove stems and coarsely chop.
4. Drain soaked rice in a sieve and rinse with cold water.
5. Heat oil in a large, heavy pan or stock pot and stir fry garlic and ginger for several minutes.
6. Add diced sausage and cook for a few minutes.
7. Add drained and rinsed rice, stir and fry for a few minutes.
8. Add mushrooms.
9. Add wine, broth, and all seasonings and bring to a boil. Adjust seasonings to taste (may need more soy sauce or some salt). Make sure to stir periodically because sticky rice is, well, sticky.
10. Add chopped chestnuts and gently stir into the rice mixture.
11. Lower heat to a simmer, cover pot and allow to steam, undisturbed for 20 minutes. Resist the temptation to peek under the lid.
12. At this point, rice should be fully cooked and can be used to stuff the turkey. If it seems too dry stir in more broth until moistened.
13. If preparing to eat without stuffing in turkey, stir contents and then replace lid. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
14. Garnish with scallions and fried shallots, if desired. Excellent with turkey gravy.
A version of this was published on November 15, 2010 on Salon.com.