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November 2009

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Transforming Thanksgiving Leftovers into New Traditions

Growing up in a Chinese household, my parents tried to give us the American Thanksgiving experience by having some of the traditional dishes: Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc. It wasn't the kind of fare they grew up eating, so they thought that the Albertson's Thanksgiving-in-a-Box with everything pretty much already made would be just fine (it was convienent and inexpensive, therefore very American). For the record, Asians generally don't celebrate "Thanksgiving." With the lack of a Plymouth Rock and stories of pilgrims becoming pals with Native Americans, I think it lacks a certain authenticity (as if the traditional Thanksgiving story didn't lack enough of that). Anyway, We would heat everything up, ate it, and then watched some t.v. After a few years of this, my parents went with making Mongolian Hot Pot instead - a delicious mix of meats and vegetables served up fondue style in a clay pot for the family to enjoy.

Thinking back on those instant Turkey days, I remembered that I was never really impressed. The turkey had decent flavor but was often dry, the powdered mashed potatoes weren't even up to par with those served at Denny's. No, my fondest memories were of the mixing of traditions - when we took the leftovers and adapted them with a Chinese twist. I believe that transforming existing ingredients into new, creative dishes is at the heart of Chinese cooking. For example, "Chop Suey" - the biggest culinary practical joke played from one culture to another? That was the Chinese. Living in an area where meat meat was scarce but hot peppers abundant? Make Thousand Pepper Chicken and transform the next 4,000 years of Sichuan style cooking.

My father would take the leftover turkey - or if there was a good sale on turkey, he'd buy like 7 or 8 of them - and make things like "Kung Pao Turkey" with his own home-made sauce or "Twice Cooked Turkey" (a play on a traditional Sichuan dish). Sure, to avoid being made fun of, I'd bring turkey sandwiches to school...but at the end of the day, I'd rush home to eat some real food with a bowl of fresh steamed rice.

This year, I'm happy to carry on my family tradition as well as incorporate Lauren's into a new Thanksgiving -although she did give me an odd look when I asked about making rice for the turkey and gravy. On Wednesday, we had our own hot pot with an assortment of fresh, local ingredients (this is Portland after all). Yesterday, we made a nice smoked turkey with her mom's recipe for dressing and garlic-mashed potatoes. And today, I'm going to combine many of those things into something new.

I'm thinking of making a stir fry of hand made La Mian noodles, turkey, Taiwanese Bok Choy, ginger, and scallions. I might make some turkey and potato dumplings too. Or maybe I'll call my dad and borrow his recipe for Kung Pao sauce and relive some of my childhood Thanksgiving. What are some of your traditions? Have you experienced a fusion of cultures for the holidays?