While Thanksgiving dinner conjures up images of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and stuffing, many Asian Americans have long hosted spreads that look a little different.
Instead, the holiday has served as an opportunity to not only congregate family members around a shared feast, but also weave some of their own cuisines into a distinctly American celebration.
NBC News spoke with prominent Asian Americans across a variety of industries and though no two figures celebrated the holiday the same way, they all echoed a similar message: Creative approaches in how Asian Americans observe Thanksgiving both reaffirm the group’s place in the U.S. while also connecting them to their cultures of origin.
“Just thinking about these incredible traditions that we’ve adapted to our different cultures makes me think about the wonderful aspects of diversity,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., told NBC News.
Chu, who grew up in South Los Angeles, a predominantly black neighborhood at the time, said that she didn’t always see much of her culture reflected around her or in media, but her Chinese immigrant mother ensured that their heritage was preserved in their household. The Thanksgiving table proved no exception. Her family enjoyed turkey, marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, honey and ginger, which was then stuffed with traditional Chinese sticky rice, Chinese sausage and mushrooms.
Actor Ritesh Rajan, known for his role in “The Jungle Book,” described how every year, his Indian American family goes all-out for the holiday, ensuring the meal includes both the classic foods, as well as dishes from his Indian family. Rajan mentioned masala-fried turkey and lamb biryani topped with bagara baingan, an eggplant, sesame and peanut gravy, as two of the most popular dishes at his feast. Of course, mashed potatoes and marshmallow-covered sweet potato casserole, among several other classics, also make appearances. Everything on the table, he emphasized, is always well-seasoned.
For Phil Yu, better known as the popular Asian American blogger Angry Asian Man, his parents tried their best to introduce him to mainstream American holidays. The custom always enveloped some tricks from the old country, however.
“Despite being an immigrant family, we served up some pretty epic traditional Thanksgiving feasts over several decades now, learning a lot along the way,” Yu, who’s Korean American, said. “Like, what the hell is cranberry sauce? Still not exactly sure what you’re supposed to do with it, but it’s on the table. Next to a side of kimchi, of course. We never forget the kimchi.”
But the holiday’s true magic lies in the leftovers, Yu said. He recalls how his mother turns the leftover turkey into turkey kalguksu, Korean handcut noodle soup.
“The family gathers around the table to flatten the dough and cut the noodles,” he said. “It’s become a whole thing. Heck, I think we look forward to it now more than the actual Thanksgiving feast.”
Jordan Andino, celebrity chef and owner of Filipino taqueria Flip Sigi in New York City, said that he celebrates Thanksgiving almost religiously, throwing multiple Friendsgivings every year. This year, his early celebration featured the likes of sweet potato mash with mascarpone and butternut squash and turkey-stuffed porchetta — not exactly fare one would find at the amateur dinner table. But Andino said that the dishes aren’t so much a reflection of his roots; he argues, rather, that the essence of the holiday itself is, in his words, “Asian as s---.”
“I love cooking for people, and I love showing my love through gathering and food,” he said.
Andino pointed out that food often serves as the ultimate means of showing care and affection across Asian cultures.
“The [traditional Thanksgiving] food is different, but the excess of everything, being together and eating as a unit: To me, that defines my Asianness.”
Rajan echoed Andino’s thoughts, adding that Thanksgiving has a poignancy for him and others hailing from the immigrant experience.
While many American holidays are tied to religious significance, excluding certain groups, this particular celebration feels inclusive of those from all walks of life and provided an opportunity for many immigrants to reflect on the life they’ve been able to forge in this country.
“Everyone who came to the U.S. for a better life and better opportunity and for us it’s a big moment to say, ‘Wow I have accomplished a lot,’” Rajan said. “There’s no ‘celebrate our achievements day’ so to have this day, which can be unique to every single family, is special regardless of your background or experience. [The immigrant experience] just happens to be our unique lens of being American and we’re able to celebrate that without being ridiculed or made fun of.”
Chu concluded that, ultimately, the mix and match of cuisines is proof of “the fact that we can add different parts of our culture and make an even more delicious Thanksgiving, a greater Thanksgiving where we can celebrate the different parts of us.”