How to Explain American Thanksgiving Dinner to Chinese Family and Friends

Chinese Thanksgiving“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.

Sigh.

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)

"Dry for 5 hours cropped" by FotoosVanRobin - http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoosvanrobin/324209168/. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg
“Dry for 5 hours cropped” by FotoosVanRobin – http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoosvanrobin/324209168/. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dry_for_5_hours_cropped.jpg

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.

P.S.: For those of you looking for a great Chinese-American turkey recipe, this soy sauce and honey-glazed turkey will satisfy Chinese and American palates alike.

2. Cranberries are like Chinese hawthorn (shānzhā,山楂)

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Chinese hawthorn (image via http://baike.baidu.com/view/6877.htm)

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)

Image via http://www.xiachufang.com/dish/512948/
Eight-treasures rice (image via http://www.xiachufang.com/dish/512948/)

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”.

By the way, here’s an ingenious recipe that mediates a truce between Western-style stuffing and eight-treasures rice called sticky-rice dressing.

4. Pumpkin pie is like a pumpkin-flavored gāodiǎn (糕点)

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Mung-bean cakes, a Chinese dessert or gaodian.

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)

Winter Solstice Dinner in China is a lot like Thanksgiving Dinner in the US.
Winter Solstice dinner with the family in China.

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?