Holidays could be a lonely time for the first Chinese immigrants to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. Not only were the missing loved ones thousands of miles away, the holiday traditions themselves were like nothing the Chinese immigrants had experienced back home. This prompted many to develop traditions of their own that they passed on through the generations. Nearly 150 years later, some Chinese Americans embrace their dual cultures by incorporating traditions of both countries into their Thanksgiving celebrations.
Making Thanksgiving Their Own
In an effort to fit in and do things the American way, some Chinese families found themselves eating bland turkey, potatoes, and stuffing on Thanksgiving Day that bore no resemblance to the traditional foods they knew and loved. This caused some Chinese to dread Thanksgiving. It wasn’t that they weren’t grateful for the opportunities they had in America, they just couldn’t enjoy food that was so different from what they ate on a day-to-day basis. Many families began to put their own cultural twist on Thanksgiving after realizing that they just couldn’t keep eating food they found so unpleasant.
One idea to make the Thanksgiving turkey more palatable to Asian families is to glaze it with Teriyaki sauce and stuff it with rice. Adding a lot of garlic and butter to mashed potatoes made them taste more like they came from the home country as well. Others swap out the turkey entirely for a the historically significant Peking Duck instead. Some other possibilities for a more “Chinese” twist on Thanksgiving include:
- Fish cake soup
- Genmai tea
- Gravy made from shitake butter
- Mochi and pumpkin pie
- Mongolian hot pot
- Roast duck stuffed with sticky rice
- Stir fried green beans
- Sushi and sashimi
- Sweet potato tempura
While some Chinese American families enjoy the same combination of dishes from both cultures every year, others found that they liked to continually expand their Thanksgiving day meal. For example, one Chinese immigrant who has called the United States home since 1982 started out with a more traditional American meal of turkey and fixing and evolved to his current recipe:
- Start with a turkey breast weighing 8 to 10 pounds and add a few pinches of rosemary and one cup of soy sauce.
- Use the tip of a knife to prick the turkey breasts and then add the rosemary underneath the skin of the breast. The cook should then remove the skin and place it in storage bag while adding the soy sauce at the same time. The bag now needs to go inside of a bowl in the refrigerator where it should sit for four to six hours to marinate. The cook should be certain to turn the bag containing turkey skin and soy cause over several times during that timeframe to ensure that it marinates evenly.
- Now it’s time to prepare the fillings for the turkey. Some popular options include Chinese preserved sausage, shitaki mushrooms, dried shrimp, and sticky rice with chestnuts.
- The cook should now set the temperature of the oven according to how much the turkey weighs. As the oven preheats, the cook should place the fillings inside of the turkey. Once the cooking is halfway complete, he or she can coat it with olive oil and apple honey and place back in the oven. Surrounding the turkey with regular potatoes or sweet potatoes is a nice touch before serving it.
As the popularity of Thanksgiving grows, some Chinese locals have chosen to celebrate it in their birth country. Similar to the United States, natives of China often put their own twist on the foods they choose to serve and even the name of Thanksgiving itself. In some Chinese provinces, people refer to the holiday associated with giving thanks as Friendsgiving as they gather to celebrate love and friendship.
The Best Local Restaurant to Celebrate Thanksgiving with a Chinese Flavor
As an award-winning Chinese restaurant popular with natives of San Francisco and tourists alike, Chili House is open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. This includes Thanksgiving. With the American holiday just a few weeks away, now is the perfect time to make alternative plans to celebrate it without having to spend days cooking and preparing to serve guests. Instead of the traditional turkey dinner eaten by millions of Americans, those who want to stay close to their Asian roots can enjoy a feast of Peking duck and other dishes served family style and in generous portions.
Chili House San Francisco has catered to large family groups for years. The staff loves to celebrate family and community and looks forward to preparing a Chinese Thanksgiving to remember for guests this 2019 holiday season.
In China, A Meal is More than Something to Eat
In many countries and places, the true culture of the place can be found in the food, but it isn’t always what is eaten, although that is important, that truly showcases the social fabric. How the food is eaten is just as important. As globalization makes the world ever smaller, food may be the last true indicator of an area’s society.
Meal Time in China Conveys the Family Hierarchy
The majority of tables in a Chinese household are round, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place of honor. The most esteemed guest or the head of the household will generally sit in the chair that faces the entrance to the dining area. To the left and to the right of the head of the family will sit the next members of importance, and this hierarchy will continue on around the table meaning the youngest member of the family ends up directly across from the oldest.
Once everyone is seated, it isn’t yet time to dig in. The more traditional families will require the youngest to invite the eldest to enjoy the meal. It is also important to note that the best dishes or favorite dishes will be placed directly in front of the head of the family and the treasured guests. The first person to pick up their chopsticks and begin the meal will also be the head of the family, but once that action has begun, the younger generations can relax and enjoy the meal. Respect and duty have been served.
Etiquette at a Chinese Dinner Table
Wherever you are seated at the table, you should begin your meal with those dishes that are nearest to you. Adding a few morsels to your plate with your chopsticks before passing the dish on to the person on your left or right. No one should dig around in the plate with their chopsticks looking for a particular piece of meat or another item because this is not only very rude, but it is also extremely unhygienic.
At a formal dinner or banquet, there can be anywhere from 12-16 dishes on the table. There will generally be a handful of cold dishes such as fruit or other items typically served chilled or at room temperature. Then there will also be eight to ten dishes of heated food items. If there are items on the table that are very expensive or foods that are considered rare, this is considered an honor to the guests.
In the Chinese household, a family member may show affection by placing a particularly good morsel of food on a loved one’s plate. This is considered the equivalent of telling someone you care about them. People that have a hard time talking about their feelings of affection can generally get the point across in this manner.
At the End of the Meal
Once a diner has finished eating, he or she will place their chopsticks neatly to the side of their bowl or plate. It is considered very rude to leave them stuck inside the unfinished food bits, and it is against etiquette to leave them sticking up from a rice bowl. This act invokes leaving incense on the altar of a dead ancestor, so it is considered rude and disrespectful to do so at the dinner table.
The rules of etiquette may have morphed over the years in the Chinese household, and in any other household in the world, but there is still a lot to learn in the eating rituals of other cultures. Having a meal with a family in China, or even a Chinese household in another country is a good way to experience what it means to be Chinese.