An evergreen Thanksgiving tale shared on Lassi with Lavina by immigrants from all over
When Sunita Advaney, now married and settled in Forest Hills, was seven years old, she came home from first grade and asked her immigrant parents about Thanksgiving. Her father Lal Lakhati, who had migrated from India, didn’t just explain the holiday to her, he actually went out and bought a small rotisserie bird and all the trimmings and the family had a Thanksgiving dinner.
This became an annual tradition in their home in Astoria, until Sunita was 15 and learnt to cook. She recalls, “My father taught me how to sew and stitch the turkey and we invited family over. That first year we did two turkeys – one was traditional and one was tandoori turkey – a bright red because we coated it with tandoori spices and coloring and stuffed it with biryani and boiled eggs. We need our chillies and it was a good way to ease people into turkey because turkey is not part of our culture.”
The Pilgrim Fathers would have been perplexed with this glowing red bird, and perhaps even more so if they had accompanied Alvin Thomas of Floral Park to the Mar Thoma Church in Merrick for an elaborate Thanksgiving lunch. The menu did not have the big bird or the traditional Thanksgiving fixings but the delectable aromas which permeated the hall promised an unforgettable South Indian meal: Chili chicken curry with ground cashew nuts in the sauce, salad with a yogurt dressing, vegetable fried rice, pickle and pappadums, topped with Indian rice pudding.
Annie Cheriyan, one of the trustees of the church, explained that they decided to make a traditional Kerala-style meal since most of the members of the congregation would be cooking turkey at home for Thanksgiving, albeit with Indian spices. Indians love their chilies and spices and so almost every family personalizes the recipe with its own spice rub.
Kishan and Shirley Khemlani, who migrated to New York in 1979 with their eight-year-old daughter Sony, made their first home in Jackson Heights, Queens. Khemlani recalls cooking her first bird: “I’d never seen that kind of a bird and the size really intimidated me. But I asked neighbors for recipes and that’s how I made it.”
As New Americans, they embraced the traditions of Thanksgiving fully. She says, “All the local people go to their families and since we have made our friends our family, this becomes a way to bring everyone together and for the kids to be able to share their Thanksgiving experiences in school the next day.” Over the years they have fine-tuned the meal to perfection and Sony, who is now married, is hosting the celebration in her home.
Julie Sahni, the noted cooking expert and author of several books on Indian cuisine, has lived in New York for over 30 years and has seen many a Thanksgiving celebration. She points out that most Indians immigrants have rarely eaten turkey in their home country, as turkey is a rarity in India and is used only in the Chettinad cooking of South India.
Sahni herself has cooked turkey in many ways over the years, including the tandoori style and as a spicy turkey biryani but favors the New Orleans style of turkey with oyster dressing. She says, “The friends with whom I spent my first six Thanksgivings introduced me to the Cajun style with red chillies and it’s become a part of my tradition.”
She adds, “Indians are adept at flavoring ingredients and making it in many different ways and traditions.” South Indians, for instance, might do turkey in a spicy version with black pepper and tamarind sauce that is famous in Madras in South India and could serve it with hoppers and a coconut stew.
For many Indians who are vegetarian, turkey’s starring role in the Thanksgiving meal can prove a stumbling block. Meena Patel, who lives in New Jersey, is from the Gujarati community, many of who are vegetarians. She is cooking up an Indian vegetarian meal right down to elaborate desserts for Thanksgiving. Since her children have been pleading for a turkey, she has asked her sister-in-law, who happens to be non-vegetarian, to bake it and bring it over.
Indian immigrants are particularly inventive when they have to find vegetarian alternatives to turkey. Sahni sometimes makes a whole baked pumpkin stuffed with a rich aromatic curry of kidney beans and pumpkin meat, a satisfying alternative to turkey. Other dishes on this Indian-style menu are biryani and cranberry relish which is more like an Indian chutney with cayenne pepper, walnuts and ginger added in..
Says Sahni, “I find myself adding more and more Indian touches, because this is going to be an Indian-style Thanksgiving for my family’s future generations. It really honestly doesn’t matter what you cook. The spirit of Thanksgiving is what’s important and it’s a time for rejoicing with those who are close to you.”
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Newsday.)
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