Last month, on the evening of Nov 28, Thanksgiving Day in the US, I sat down with friends to a home-cooked feast with all the usual trimmings — baked poultry, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and gravy. And in the corner of the room, several sumptuous desserts — including a two-layer chocolate cake — tempted us all to leave a little space to enjoy them as well.
And yet, as we all tucked into this American-style Thanksgiving dinner, I knew we remained largely alone in the community surrounding us. After all, Thanksgiving is not a holiday in China. That I could take the time off at all felt like a miracle itself.
Unlike the US, Thanksgiving only thrived on the menus of a handful of restaurants and hotels dishing up traditional fare in Beijing. In the local supermarkets here, Thanksgiving really didn’t exist. No towering displays of stuffing mix, pumpkin puree, fried onions and cream of mushroom soup, or ready-made gravy. No pre-baked pumpkin or pecan pies to cut and serve for guests. Not even a gigantic freezer section loaded with huge turkeys.
I had to work extra-hard to make it a memorable holiday, which meant preparing from scratch ingredients and dishes most Americans take for granted, with a vegan twist. Things like vegetable broth, gravy, cream of mushroom soup, bread crumbs for stuffing, and even those sinfully delicious fried onions you sprinkle all over your green bean casserole. That resulted in a marathon day of cooking prior to the big day — and one that left me with a newfound respect for what goes into this traditional holiday banquet.
But as I recognized that few in Beijing, or China for that matter, would be raising their glasses on the fourth Thursday of November for this feast, it got me thinking — is it really the holidays if you’re the only one celebrating in your community? What exactly is it that makes a holiday a true holiday when you don’t have the momentum of an entire nation behind you, along with all the holiday trappings in stores?
Here’s what I think, in the wake of my Thanksgiving experience.
What makes a holiday is ultimately the effort and care you put into it. And holidays can exist even just one small apartment in an entire complex, and still be holidays. It’s all about the love you bring to the day — and sharing that love with the people who matter most to you, whoever they might be.
Yes, my modest Thanksgiving feast could never possibly replicate those traditional dinners at my aunt and uncle’s place, or the ways we used to entertain the whole family at my childhood home. But it had the most important ingredient of all, which left everyone at the table feeling satisfied: heart.
Wishing everyone out there a happy holiday season!
2019 marks a sort of milestone for my husband Jun and me — the year that we will finally make an authentic American-style Thanksgiving dinner here in China. We’ve got a whole bird on the menu (for my carnivorous husband!), baked tofu for me, the vegan, and loads of comfort foods with a vegan twist — from stuffing and green bean casserole to gravy and dessert.
Thankfully, in the era of online shopping, powered by Taobao and JD, it’s never been easier to pull together the ingredients for a meal just like your mother or grandma used to make.
Still, bringing it all together requires flexibility and sometimes a little ingenuity too. As we gear up to make this our best Thanksgiving ever in China, I’d like to share a few tips and tricks for anyone else hoping to cook up an amazing and authentic Thanksgiving dinner in China.
#1: Aim for more local poultry
While a traditional Thanksgiving dinner revolves around turkey (so much so that in the US people even refer to Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day”), this poultry isn’t native to China and won’t easily be found at your local supermarket or fresh market. On top of it, most of us here only have toaster ovens that couldn’t possibly accommodate such a huge bird.
So if you don’t own a super-huge oven and you’re not keen on splurging on a restaurant’s ready-made turkey, then simply aim for a more local poultry option, period. For example, whole chicken and duck are both readily available in fresh markets in most cities, and either could make for a wonderful culinary centerpiece for your meal. Besides, it really all comes down to the seasoning — just spice up the bird as you usually would at home, and you’ll still find it delivers that nostalgic flavor you remember from past dinners.
While cranberry lovers have rejoiced over their rising abundance in China (Ocean Spray Craisins, I’m looking at you), good luck finding fresh cranberries. But who says you absolutely must serve your cranberries as a sauce? I’m planning on providing a small bowl of my favorite dried cranberries to represent this must-have at the table.
#3 Adapt your recipes to the stovetop or rice cooker
While much of Thanksgiving cooking relies heavily on baking in the oven, for those of us in China, that puts extra pressure on your toaster oven, which is often much smaller and less accommodating than the ovens most Americans use. But lots of things that normally get baked could also go on the stovetop, such as stuffing and green bean casserole. Or you could even use your rice cooker to make some of the dinner (such as rice cooker stuffing).
#4 No poultry seasoning? No sage? No problem!
The beloved American poultry seasoning that appears in seemingly every Thanksgiving recipe you’ll find online is pretty much missing in action here in China. Same for sage, which features in just about every single poultry seasoning substitute. Never fear — first off, consider any of these substitutes for sage. And then use those as you build a poultry seasoning substitute.
#5 Make your own “canned” pumpkin puree
You’ll strain to find canned pumpkin puree outside of supermarkets that cater to foreigners, and even then those cans come at a premium. But sweet, hearty pumpkins much like those used to make pumpkin pie are plentiful at markets, for much less, so why not make your own puree instead? Here’s an easy recipe for pumpkin puree.
#6 Lettuce not a must for salads
Growing up, Thanksgiving always included at least one salad at the table, with plenty of fresh lettuce. But here in China, I can’t always find my favorite lettuce in a pinch, especially at the last minute. So my plan is to make a salad that doesn’t need any lettuce, such as this Middle Eastern chickpea salad or Israeli salad. (Even better, salads without lettuce can often be made ahead of time to simplify your preparation for Thanksgiving.)
Wherever you are in the world, here’s wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!
If you’ve ever prepared a Thanksgiving dinner in China, what tips and tricks would you recommend?
As a longtime vegan, Thanksgiving – a holiday that revolves around turkey – never ranked as one of my favorite holidays. So when I moved to China, where the fourth Thursday of November is just another average workday, I didn’t feel the need to resurrect the holiday and celebrate it in spite of being half a world away from my American family.
“Well, we have this big meal and eat things like turkey and cranberries…”
As I tried describing one of the most essentially American holidays of the year to my Chinese in-laws, I could already see their eyes glaze over with confusion and sense the questions forming in their minds. Turkey? Cranberries? Even though I expressed these perfectly in Chinese, the result was still gibberish because neither of them had ever seen a turkey or tasted cranberries in their entire lives.
When you’re an American like me, living abroad as part of a foreign family that doesn’t understand the importance of what we call “Turkey Day”, let alone what foods we traditionally eat, it can be frustrating. American Thanksgiving is part of the culture I grew up with. It’s something I’d like to share with my family in China – or at the very least, describe the holiday to them in a way that actually makes sense to them.
Fortunately, there is a way. Over the years, I’ve discovered that some of the most important things about Thanksgiving dinner have counterparts or equivalents in Chinese culture. You know, something your Chinese family actually knows and has probably tasted in their lives.
So if you’re struggling to explain American Thanksgiving to your Chinese loved ones, here are 5 suggestions that might just help you:
1. Roast turkey is America’s version of roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭)
Outside the world of China’s well-heeled expats and cushy five-star hotels, turkeys just aren’t a thing here. They’re not native to China – so of course, most people haven’t actually tasted one. Even using the appropriate Chinese word for “turkey” (huǒjī, 火鸡) won’t necessarily make it easier for people like Baba and Mama to understand what you mean.
Fortunately, Chinese cuisine includes roast poultry (Beijing duck, anyone?), so you could always start off by comparing roast turkey to China’s roast duck (kǎoyā, 烤鸭). It doesn’t taste same (so this vegan has heard) but it’s in the ballpark.
What about stewed chicken (dùn jīròu, 炖鸡肉)? You usually baste roast turkey in the bird’s own juices, which is sort of like stewing chicken meat. You could even tell them what I’ve said before – that turkey is really just an oversized chicken.
2. Cranberries are like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā，山楂)
How do you explain the sweet-tart goodness of cranberries to people who have lived all their lives without cranberry sauce or Craisins (those fantastic raisin-like dried cranberries that have become one of my favorite snacks ever in America)?
Simple – tell them it’s like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā，山楂). These sour berries are the quintessential fruit for tanghulu, delectable candied fruit skewers made popular in Northern China and now available in most Chinese cities. When Chinese hawthorn are warmed up and sugar coated, they taste surprisingly like cranberry sauce – a crunchier, less sauce-like version, mind you.
So guess what I’m cooking up for Thanksgiving this Thursday to substitute for cranberry sauce on the table? If you’d also like to try your hand at making candied Chinese hawthorn, check out this recipe.
3. Stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭)
In a China where rice, noodles and steamed buns rule, try explaining stuffing — seasoned Western-style bread mixed with things like carrots, onions and celery — to your Chinese relatives. I once tried listing off the ingredients to my Chinese mother-in-law; while she never said “That’s weird,” I could somehow read it in her puzzled eyes – eyes that have never seen or heard of Stove Top (the number one stuffing brand in the US).
If only I had realized that China already has a stuffing-like dish called eight-treasures rice (bābǎofàn, 八宝饭). Granted, the sweet, rather than savory, flavors reign in this dish of sugary glutinous rice stuffed with all sorts of colorful dried fruits, seeds, and nuts. But many versions of Thanksgiving stuffing include dried fruits and other “treasures”. So just tell your Chinese family and friends stuffing is like a savory version of eight-treasures rice (xián de bābǎofàn, 咸的八宝饭), where we use bread instead of rice and vegetables or spices as the “treasures”.
4. Pumpkin pie is like a pumpkin-flavored gāodiǎn (糕点)
No Thanksgiving Day – or explanation of a Thanksgiving Day – is complete without a little dessert. But here’s where it gets challenging, because desserts as Americans know them – you know, death by chocolate and the endless fluffy white frosting and whipped cream – just aren’t in traditional Chinese culture.
Fortunately, Western-style bakeries serving up pastries, cakes and loaves of bread have exploded all over China, which means a lot of people – especially the younger set – know what you mean when you’re talking about cakes and pies.
It’s the older generations — people like my mother-in-law and John’s grandma – you have to worry about. They’ve probably never even set foot in one of these bakeries.
Still, China has plenty of home-grown pastries or gāodiǎn (糕点), such as mooncakes (yuèbing, 月饼) and mung-bean cakes (lǜdòugāo, 绿豆糕). For the elders in your family, you could call pumpkin pie a sort of pumpkin gaodian (nánguāgāo, 南瓜糕).
5. American Thanksgiving itself is like China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至)
I’ve heard lots of people equate Thanksgiving Day with China’s Mid-Autumn Festival because both holidays occur in the fall and stress being together with family. But honestly, it’s a terrible comparison for lots of other reasons – especially in terms of food.
To celebrate China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, people eat mooncakes. Meanwhile, to celebrate American Thanksgiving Day, people feast on turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and everything else until their stomachs can’t bear it. Food and family both take center stage in Thanksgiving – something you can’t say about China’s Mid-Autumn Festival.
My suggestion? American Thanksgiving equals China’s Winter Solstice (dōngzhì, 冬至). Not only do both of these holidays bring family together and involve huge feasts, they also share a very important characteristic – they both kick off the holiday season in their respective countries. While American Thanksgiving signals the start of the Christmas season, it’s China’s Winter Solstice that reminds us Chinese New Year is just around the corner.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an American Thanksgiving dinner of my own to prepare for here in China. To those of you celebrating, happy American Thanksgiving Day!
How do you explain American Thanksgiving dinner to your Chinese family and friends?
I wanted it to be just another Saturday — as it was to my Chinese coworkers. I rode the number 44 bus to the office, as always. I took the elevator up to floor 12. And when I came to my desk, there was my ex-Chinese boyfriend, Frank, still sitting next to me, as usual.
In a strange way, even Frank’s presence was more comfortable than the truth — that I was lonely, because two days had passed since Thanksgiving, with no sign of a holiday.
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