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In many Minnesota households this Thanksgiving, the main meal is all about turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes — or Venezuelan hallacas, Mexican mole, Indian bread pudding and Jamaican jerk-spiced turkey. Six Twin Cities chefs who hail from around the globe tell us, in their own words, what’s on their Thanksgiving tables.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
My grandpa was born in New York, so in my family, we always have a little bit of Venezuela and a little bit of American culture. For Thanksgiving, we get together and cook the turkey, but we actually eat our Christmas food. So it’s a little bit of both countries mixed in.
There are three or four items we always make. One of them is hallacas. I think hallacas represent Venezuela 100%. Hallacas were made a very long time ago when the Spaniards came to what they called the Indian islands, and Venezuela was a part of that. The Spaniard people would throw away all their leftovers, and the slaves and native people weren’t able to eat any of that. They didn’t have enough food or water or anything. So they started to pick from the floor from the leftovers people threw away, and they started to wrap all these up in plantain leaves and hide it in the ground. And of course, corn, in South America, grows everywhere. So they started to make a dough with corn, and would mix the dough with all these leftovers. And that is what we call today hallacas. It was like surviving, you know?
It’s pork, beef, chicken, raisins, olives, almonds, capers. All of this is cooked in red wine and it’s kind of a stew, but thicker. It’s called guiso. And the plantain is used to wrap all of this up. People think Venezuelan food is similar to Mexican food, and it’s not true. People are like, ‘Whoa, you are Latin, why do you use rosemary and raisins and capers?’ Because our food is based on what the Spaniards brought to our land, so our food is very Mediterranean. It’s not spicy, but it has a ton of flavor.
This is one of the Christmas items on our menu now. I have been working in the industry for more than 15 years, and Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days. I would love to be open for Thanksgiving, but unfortunately, the [Midtown Global] Market decided to close. So my first Thanksgiving, believe it or not, in the last 10 years, I’m going to have time to share it with my family.
In the last 18 years of me working in this industry, I have always worked on Thanksgiving. I had to learn how to cook the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, ham, we did a lot of casseroles, very homestyle, simple food. There was always leftovers, and in a lot of places they would give you a turkey. For us, every time we see turkey, we just want to dip it in mole. Our tradition is to make mole and eat it the next day: turkey mole tacos or enchiladas with mole.
The thing with this holiday is it’s kind of in the middle of a few big dates of Mexican holidays. We have Day of the Dead and then we have the Mexican Revolution. And then Dec. 12 we celebrate the Virgin in Mexico. It’s a lot of street food, so I relate to that style of food when I think about Thanksgiving. As I started hanging out with people who would invite me to their house for Friendsgiving, I always showed up with salsas and tostadas. A few times I made tamales. And people just loved it because it was different. It was special.
In general, I think if you ask any Latin household, it just means getting together with friends and family, and they’re just going to cook what they always cook. It doesn’t matter where the date is, I think we always gravitate to the same home-feel foods.
Whether we call it Thanksgiving or ‘honoring the Native Americans day,’ the way we do it is we embrace the American-ness of family getting together. Being an immigrant, we might not all celebrate the same religious holidays in America, but we do come together for some of these uniquely American holidays. And Thanksgiving is the epitome. Every country has their own independence day. But Thanksgiving is an opportunity to immerse myself in something truly American — whether Native American or modern American, it’s truly something special.
What we typically do in our family is standard: All Jamaican meals start with coconut rice and beans. And then because we have a mixed family, whereby my wife is African American, we would then include all of the traditional sides, so collard greens, big macaroni and cheese. And sweet potato pie with coconut milk and condensed milk is usually a staple in our household.
We typically would do a turkey and use jerk seasonings and jerk flavor, marinating the turkey overnight, and usually deep-fry it. The end result is a very moist, succulent and extremely well flavored turkey, because turkey meat is generally so bland — no offense to turkeys. You can’t overdo it with the seasoning, and jerk seasoning kicks it up a notch.
Thanksgiving is a time to be with family and loved ones. We can all take a collective breath and just sit down and break bread together and heal. And you could be arguing with each other, you could be loving each other, you could be cooking together, but just being in presence, in community with our family, it’s very important to me, that holiday.
Thanksgiving is the holiday that I have learned to love the absolute most here in the U.S. It’s such a beautiful tradition and everything that it represents really resonates with me and my values. It seems like Thanksgiving for Americans is also the most sacred holiday. That’s when families are really shutting off [unplugging]. I don’t even know if on Christmas they do that.
Before I met my husband, I got invited to friends’ Thanksgiving and learning about the whole process, and I can tell you that I am not that into the turkey, but I am very, very interested in all the sides. I still get goosebumps when I think about corn casserole with cream cheese, and brussels sprouts with bacon, glazed carrots with fines herbes, and we have very high standards for the mashed potatoes in our house. The thing that I can’t understand and I don’t like is the marshmallow and sweet potato. I don’t get that one. How did that happen?
My husband added a little twist to the turkey last year, he marinated the turkey with Mexican adobo and it was amazing. I don’t really add a Norwegian twist to it. Thanksgiving is the time that I have experienced the most passion in the American tradition for food. I’ve tried to figure out what is American cuisine? Because it’s a melting pot of so many different cuisines, so what is original? And I think Thanksgiving has a lot of those answers.
I really think it is good that one day of the year we sit around the table and ask each other what are you grateful for. That’s a tradition in our family. And we have created a tradition in our family for Thanksgiving that we wear pajamas from when we wake up till when we go to bed. That is because I learned that on Thanksgiving, you just eat the whole day, so why would you even want to get dressed in something that might be uncomfortable?
There’s a Hmong version of Thanksgiving. It’s called Noj Peb Cauj, and what it translates to is ‘Eating of the Thirty.’ And a lot of times that celebration is done after the harvest, kind of like Thanksgiving. In the old country, all these villages would come together and have these big parties, and that’s when all the singles come and meet each other and mingle. So for us, it’s kind of intrinsically in our culture already. We just don’t have the whole turkey program and that whole American history.
Some of the younger generations like my siblings and I, we’re kind of in charge now, and we’ve taken on the turkey thing. I might be biased, but I think our food is a lot better at our Thanksgiving. We have the turkey, we have the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, but then we have the sticky rice, we have the chicken wings, egg rolls, stir fry. It’s just a big mix. When I was a kid I used to feel like, oh man, we don’t have a Thanksgiving tradition. But then as I got older, it was like, forget that tradition. We have some really fun stuff. And the heart of it has always been there, this thankfulness.
What I remember the most from my parents, when it comes to Thanksgiving, is being grateful for being in this country, for being able to make it in this country, and for each other. When you come from a war-torn country, as a people group, sometimes it’s all about the little things that we’re thankful for.
Sometimes it blows my mind, almost the silliness of — we get to make food and we get to gather people together — I get to do that because there was a generation before me that had to put aside their dreams and their hopes to survive. What I often think about, regardless of Thanksgiving, is the constant reminder that freedom isn’t free, and you might not have paid the price for freedom, but someone did.
When I came here, all I was aware of was a long weekend. I was not really aware of the tradition of Thanksgiving. And then I got married, and my mother-in-law started inviting us. She cooks a very traditional menu: turkey, gravy, some salads.
My first Thanksgiving, not knowing what it is, I wasn’t expecting each and every family member. I thought we would just eat and that’s it. I’m vegetarian, and frankly, I had my food already before going there to make sure I didn’t starve. But his mom cooked a meal for me. I was shocked. She made me cumin rice and green beans. I felt so emotional, like, somebody here is taking care of me. And then I was like, ‘Omigod, I have to eat and I already ate.’ I was so full at the end.
After that, as I started joining those dinners, I wanted to add something to it, something from me. These last two years, I started making this one dessert which everybody loves because it hits the spot. It’s an Indian bread pudding, basically. I also do a grazing table, and we all contribute some items from four or five households together. The grazing table has a lot of things — some German stuff, but then I bring my Indian flair to it. I took over the vegetarian part of it. I will cook for everybody and I will introduce new things.
Apart from me, there is nobody foreign in the family, so Thanksgiving is my personal thank-you to everyone for allowing me to be in the family and be myself, and supporting me in what I’m doing. In India, we may not say things openly like you do here, but we like to share our food, and that food could mean any number of things: Thank you for supporting, or thank you for anything you’re doing for me, or I’m so in love. It’s expressed through food.
Indian bread pudding. Serves 6.
Note: Jyotiee Kistner, co-owner of Muddy
Tiger, a food truck serving Marathi cuisine, makes this Indian dessert for her American family every
Thanksgiving. The dish is best served cold.
For the milk (rabdi)
- 2 c. whole milk
- 2 c. evaporated milk
- 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
- Pinch of saffron
- 1 to 1 1/2 tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. rose water or 1 to 2 drops rose essence
- 1/2 c. nuts (chopped pistachios, sliced almonds)
For the sugar syrup
- 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/4 c. water
- 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
For the bread
- 6 slices white sandwich bread
- 2 tbsp. ghee (clarified butter)
- Chopped pistachios, sliced almonds, saffron
To prepare the milk (rabri)
In a broad, thick-bottomed pan or saucepan, bring the whole milk to a
stirring occasionally to keep it from browning or sticking to the pan. Add evaporated milk and lower heat to
simmer. Whisk in the cardamom and pinch of crushed saffron. Let simmer until milk is the consistency of a
(it should be easy to pour, but not runny). Add sugar to taste and stir until it dissolves. Add the rose
the nuts and stir well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
To prepare the sugar syrup
Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil; boil for
minutes. Check the consistency every couple of minutes by cooling a few drops of the syrup and then putting
between your thumb and forefinger. When you separate your fingers, it should form a single string.
To prepare the bread
Cut the crust off the bread. Cut bread into equally sized squares,
triangles. Heat 1 tablespoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium-low heat and toast half of the bread slices
melted ghee until light brown on both sides. Repeat with remaining ghee and bread.
To assemble shahi tukda
Dip the fried bread slices in the sugar syrup so each piece is coated on
sides. Arrange the syrup-soaked bread slices neatly on a serving plate. Pour the cold rabri over the bread
and let them soak up the milk for up to 10 minutes. Garnish with nuts and saffron threads.