Asian American Thanksgiving
For a meal that starts with wasabi deviled eggs and ends with gingery lemon mousse, Boston chef and baker Joanne Chang combines her love of Asian flavors and her husband's historic (he says prehistoric) New England heritage.
I must have been around 10 when I realized that my Thanksgivings were not quite like everyone else's.
My best friend's mom asked me, post-holiday, if we had enjoyed "a nice big turkey," and while I politely nodded yes, inside I was bemused. I'd always associated turkey with Swanson's Hungry-Man TV dinners, an oddity (read: luxury item) we occasionally enjoyed. As Taiwanese immigrants, my parents did their best to habituate me and my brother to American customs—we were ghoulish on Halloween, prematurely romantic on Valentine's Day and, hopefully, suitably festive at Christmas, bringing sugar cookies to neighborhood potlucks and such. But for Thanksgiving, the closest we got to roasting "a nice big turkey" was making Peking duck, lacquered with honey and soy and stuffed with baby bok choy and slivered green onions. (Walking into the bathroom to shower and unexpectedly encountering an upside-down duck might not be the scene from Psycho, but it can still keep you up at night.)
Anne Walker. Photo © Con Poulos.
Once I was on my own, I did break from our traditions in an attempt to try more American ones. As the Trade Winds might croon, "Dallas is a lonely town, when you're the only Taiwanese girl around." My Thanksgiving was going to be like the rest of America's, darn it. I shopped the supermarket aisles trying to pretend I wasn't missing the abundance of our Asian market. I brined and roasted turkeys. Soon after I entered the world of professional cooking, first as a line cook and then as a pastry cook, the wow factor of my Thanksgiving dinners ratcheted up several hundred notches. I slowly discovered that nothing beats real mashed potatoes made with more butter and cream than potatoes, or real gravy made from turkey drippings and stock, or pumpkin pie made with an all-butter crust.
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My husband, Christopher, and I now have our own place, Myers + Chang, a sweet little pan-Asian restaurant where the menu is inspired by both his and my personal takes on Chinese food. Our Thanksgiving celebrations also reflect both our families' traditions; he is from Newburyport, Massachusetts, a historic (or prehistoric, as he puts it) New England town. I'm told his father and brothers went out and shot wild turkeys and such—with bows and arrows, no less! Christopher shares his Thanksgiving memories with me, and I attempt to replicate them, albeit with an Asian twist. His recollection of deviled eggs passed around with pre-dinner cocktails made me think of my mom's eggs soaked in soy–star anise broth; we now serve Chinese deviled eggs spiked with Sriracha and wasabi mayonnaise. He fondly recalls homegrown carrots glazed with brown sugar; I glaze carrots in lots of butter, then add a generous dollop of red miso paste to make them sweet and mellow. I've had fun over the years experimenting with American-style turkey accented with sage, but I still craved the soy sauce, scallion and ginger flavors I grew up with, so I now add those to my roasted turkey.
Anne Walker. Photo © Con Poulos.
Christopher occasionally rhapsodizes about his mother's cranberry sauce—quite different from my slightly spicy orange-cranberry chutney. A few miles from his parents' home, on Plum Island, were cranberry bogs that reputedly yielded the best fruit on God's green earth. Such is the backyard braggadocio of New England natives. So, off we went to Plum Island a few years back, deep into rainy November, only to be greeted by less-than-humorous postings signifying the end of cranberry season, fines and imprisonment. I'm about as law-abiding as it gets. Christopher? Not so much. We trudged into the bogs. We'd barely heard the first berries hit the bottom of our pail when the sirens sounded. Luckily, most of the policemen were either Christopher's friends from high school or the same cops who'd arrested him in high school. After a laugh or two, we filled a bucket and were on our way. Was it worth it? It was mighty good cranberry sauce, I must say. But as with most things, the journey was the real treat.
And dessert? It would certainly be easy to grab something from the case at my bakery, Flour Bakery + Café, or make a pumpkin, apple or pecan pie at home from my new cookbook, also named Flour (what can I say, I like the name). Often, though, after baking so many traditional desserts at work in the hectic days before Thanksgiving, I look forward to serving a few unusual ones at my own celebration. Christopher loves the lemon-ginger mousse we offer at Myers + Chang, and finishing it off with green-tea fortune cookies always leads to a good time, with the message inside as likely to say "Happy Thanksgiving" as "Give the chef a big kiss."
Joanne Chang co-owns Myers + Chang and Flour Bakery + Café with her husband, Christopher Myers. She is the author of Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Café.