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Making it Our Own: An Indian American Thanksgiving With Tandoori Turkey and Sweet Potato Poriyal

Making it Our Own: An Indian American Thanksgiving With Tandoori Turkey and Sweet Potato Poriyal

  • Ask any South Asian American what Thanksgiving means to them and how they celebrate it, and you get a taste of all that is colorful and wonderful about an immigrant’s life.

I’ve lived in this country for over 22 years now and not a single year has passed when I and my extended family and friends haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving in some form or another. My 16-year-old son when he was younger would wait the entire year for his yearly Thanksgiving spread even though I would pack him ham and turkey sandwiches all the time. There is something about a Thanksgiving meal that the second-generation children born to immigrant parent’s love. From exquisitely laid tables with the perfectly cooked bird with all the traditional trimmings and fixings to a full-on Indian meal with tandoori turkey and paneer dishes, we have always celebrated this day and genuinely given our thanks and gratitude for our life in this country and for having friends in our lives here.

We of course know by now what Thanksgiving means to Americans and its significance in its young history – how the Native Americans invited the first Mayfair pilgrims to dine with them and with it the arrival in droves of Europeans to the New World and the first President George Washington proclaiming a national day of thanks to this new land and all the opportunities it offered to every settler since then and that continues to this day.

Ravija Singh, a scientist at a California biopharma company, carving the turkey surrounded by friends and daughter Sanaa, facing right. Top photo, Ravija, with her daughter and her and son Stavan’s friends, pose with the full Thanksgiving fare.

Ask any Indian American what Thanksgiving means to them and how they celebrate it, and you get a taste of all that is colorful and wonderful about an immigrant’s life. And food plays a BIG part in it. Thanks to immigrants, Thanksgiving today across the U.S. represents multiculturalism and ethnicity – Mexican, Irish, Indian, Lebanese, Hmong and so much more. The bird takes pride of place along with the bone-in ham on most tables, but it can also be accompanied by paneer masala, butter chicken, aloo subji and fried plantains. In short, Indian-Americans, like their other immigrant brethren like Hmong and Middle Eastern origin families, have celebrated this day but made it their own — with chole-kulcha and tandoori chicken.

The Kartha family Thanksgiving with friends in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Viny Kartha, a natural resources manager with an international mining company in Scottsdale, Arizona associates Thanksgiving more with seeing family and friends rather than the historic celebration of the pilgrims’ successful harvest alongside the Wampanoag. “Essentially, Thanksgiving carries familial significance for us as it is for American families. Primarily because most of the family members are home from their respective universities and offices,” she says. We usually combine the Thanksgiving dinner with morning hikes and follow-up brunches before we feast on the large dinner. Thanksgiving dinners are often potlucks with several Indian touches. “We get a turkey, but I usually marinated the heck out of it in Indian masalas instead of the American version. Last year, our sides consisted of mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts au gratin, corn, sweet potato poriyal and a large number of desserts. We went a bit international with our desserts with Middle Eastern delicacies. There have been some years where we have gone with a full on Indifull-on for Thanksgiving dinner, and some years where we have maintained the American way of dinner,” she says.

Jaya Thomas and her husband George Varghese flanked by their Thanksgiving fare.

To most Indians I talked to, Thanksgiving fits perfectly with their worldview as unlike July 4th or Christmas, Thanksgiving is not religious nor is it associated with any political figure from American history that they can’t identify with. “Thanksgiving is not a holiday celebrated in India, so it is not a favored travel time for the Indian diaspora to visit back home, unlike Christmas or the summer holidays. So, we spend time with family and friends here in the USA,” says Kartha. And it gives them a reason to spend time with friends and family and express their gratitude.

Like for instance Jaya Thomas and her family. “Thanksgiving to us is the beginning of the holiday season – we as a family put up our Christmas lights, decorate our house and get it ready for the holidays and our three kids always look forward to the very traditional Thanksgiving meal that gives them a break from the everyday Indian meals and burgers and fries,” Jaya says. Her IT professional husband George Varghese has experimented with Caribbean rub on his turkey as well as roasting Cornish hens instead of the traditional turkey. “Both had been devoured by our kids and our friends who religiously join us on this day and celebrate thanksgiving with us every year,” Jaya says.

The Sharma family Thanksgiving. Featured here are Mineta Sharma, center, daughter Sargam, right, a high school junior, with family friend. 

Ravija Singh, a scientist at a California biopharma company, says Thanksgiving allows her to pause and take in all that she and her family are thankful for. “I celebrate every year with great enthusiasm, just like I would a Diwali!” Her annual Thanksgiving party is now a tradition that her close friends and family look forward to each year. “I have started a tradition where we go around the table for what we are all grateful for. My 13-year-old daughter has also started a tradition where she will create an original Thanksgiving artwork and I am hopeful she’ll carry it forward in her own life,” Singh says.

Rakhi Bhatiya-Arora with husband Sundeep Arora at last year’s celebrations in their home in Plymouth, Minnesota.

Rakhi Bhatiya-Arora and her doctor husband Sundeep Arora love to host for any occasion and Thanksgiving is not left behind either. In the past, they would go to a friend’s place but since the pandemic happened a lot of Indian families in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, tried their hands at cooking turkey themselves and Aroras were one of them. “Our twin sons Ram and Krish are American-born and they absolutely love the traditional Thanksgiving meal – turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and green beans casserole. So last year when pandemic kept us homebound, we cooked the turkey with all its trimmings and the kids loved it,” Rakhi told me.

Santosh Sharma, a small business owner in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, his Physical Therapist wife Mineta and daughter Sargam believe Thanksgiving synchs better in our culture and with the Desi psyche than Christmas. “While Xmas is largely limited to families with younger children, Thanksgiving is enjoyed by one and all. The true spirit of taking a breather, slowing down a bit to thank those who matter, who’ve helped us advance in our lives is indeed deep and penetrating as compared to some other come-n-go festivals such as Halloween or Christmas. Of course, every occasion and festival has its own meaning and value, but Thanksgiving is really the one that touches me from within and reminds us that in the world of instant gratification what is more important is what we already have,” Santosh explains.

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Aroras’ son Ram takes a selfie with family friends in the background.

In the Sharma household, Thanksgiving is mostly Indian cuisine and largely kept within the family though “last few years we do have my daughter’s friend Pooja come over. Sargam takes the charge of cooking, cleaning, and the decors that day. Besides keeping the regular Thanksgiving stuff, she has attempted special dishes last three thanksgiving like ‘tuvar daal’ ki Jodhpuri kachori, famous Puneri jowar ki chakli and of course our good old regular Punjabi Samosas made with potatoes and banana.”

The Sarkari family thanksgiving table as daughter Aayushi gives finishing touches.

Jyotsna Sarkari, an IT professional in the Twin Cities lets her grown daughter Aarushi also take charge that day. “Our cuisine is mostly Indian but a lot of American sides and desserts as well. Instead of a traditional turkey, we do an Indian-style whole chicken. Thanksgiving to my family means spending quality time with family, especially now when both my kids have flown the next. This day allows us to cook together and catch up on our daily lives as well as thank and express our gratitude for what we have today,” she told me.

Some families see Thanksgiving as giving back – entire families will go and volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchens and second harvest, a food shelf organization based in Minnesota.

Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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