Thanksgiving has international flavors

We often think of Thanksgiving as all-American. And it is. Which means it encompasses flavors, spices and scents from all over the world. AFR talked to a few Americans about what their cultural heritages have brought to the table.

Ivelisse Ortiz Carrero, her husband, three sons, and her brothers at the Thanksgiving table at their home in Dorado, P.R., a resort town about half an hour from San Juan, three years ago./Photo courtesy of Ivelisse Ortiz Carrero

By way of Puerto Rico

Ivelisse Ortiz Carrero is bringing a pumpkin pudding with her from Puerto Rico for her family Thanksgiving in Washington, D.C., this year. “It has to be [made] from pumpkins we grow here that are richer [and] a little sweeter,” she says. The pudding is made with “smashed” pumpkin, eggs, evaporated milk and cinnamon. “It is exceptional,” she says of the dish she learned from her mother.

“Our Thanksgiving is similar to the traditional U.S. holiday,” says the Puerto Rican native who lives in Dorado, a resort town about half an hour from San Juan. “But our seasoning and ingredients vary a little.”

She says the turkey is seasoned two or three days before Thanksgiving with a mix of garlic, peppercorns, oregano, olive oil, salt and vinegar. “We smash this in our traditional ‘pilon,’ a wooden bowl with a wooden mallet,” she says. The stuffing is made with ground beef, olives, applesauce and almonds. This is accompanied by “arroz con gandules,” rice with pigeon peas, “a very typical Puerto Rican dish,” Ortiz Carerro says.

The gravy and cranberry sauce are similar to that on U.S. tables – “we love the canned jellied one,” she says.

Instead of pies for dessert, Ortiz Carerro says she makes flan and “my famous guava cake which causes fighting among my guests because they always want more.”

This year, Ortiz Carrero’s sister is hosting Thanksgiving in her Virginia home, and it will be a big family reunion, says the mother of three grown sons. “We are baking two turkeys,” she says. “A Puerto Rican turkey with rice and a traditional American turkey with mashed potatoes.”

“Of course, before the feast, and after, it is a must to watch every football game on TV.”

Flavors of East Asia

Thanny Young’s parents never really “got” Thanksgiving.

“They were immigrants so Thanksgiving was new to them,” says the 33-year-old, Fairfax, Va., web designer (okay, full disclosure, she’s AFR’s web designer.) “It was a big dinner, but we’re Vietnamese and we had big family dinners all the time, so Thanksgiving didn’t stand out from any other weekend.”

But Young and her four siblings pushed for the tradition. “We tried to be more Americanized for Thanksgiving,” she says. “Every other dinner was very traditional Vietnamese.” The kids wanted the mashed potatoes, the yams, the cranberry sauce. And Young discovered that what she loved more than anything else was stuffing, plain bread stuffing drenched in turkey stock, or sometimes cornbread stuffing, from scratch.

When she began celebrating with her husband’s family, who are Taiwanese, she had to embrace a new reality: sticky rice stuffing. Her mother-in-law combines mounds of brown or red sticky rice with shallots, dried shrimp, pork, shitake mushrooms and Chinese five-spice seasoning. It was good, Young says. But it wasn’t bread. And then….

“I realized I missed it,” she says of her mother-in-law’s stuffing when she and her husband celebrated with her family last year. “We’re so used to eating rice with a meal. This is our rice with our traditional Thanksgiving.”

The leftovers aren’t bad either: the thick, flavorful rice porridge called congee. Often made with chicken, this one’s made with turkey. “It’s usually just rice, turkey and carrots,” she says. “It’s great.”

West African Spices

Esi Impraim’s parents were born in Ghana, but the California native says her father had a special relationship to Thanksgiving.

“He was obsessed with it,” says the 32-year-old administrative assistant from Chicago. “He was so excited for all the traditional foods. There was one year that it was just the four of us, and my mom didn’t feel like doing all the turkey so she made lobster and shrimp. My dad was so upset.”

Turkey, fried fish, fresh pepper, and kenke, a fermented corn dough, were part of Thanksgiving 2009 for the Impraim family./Photo courtesy of Esi Impraim

“The next year we went back to the traditional dinner.”

Impraim’s father died several years ago, but Thanksgiving remains a big event. She and her family gather with 15 to 20 Ghanaian friends and lay the table with all the classics – Ghanaian classics.

“Every Ghanaian meal needs rice,” Impraim says. “If a party is missing rice there’s something wrong.”

Of course there’s turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and biscuits. But they’re mostly for decoration, Impraim says. People tuck into the main attractions – spicy tomato rice called “joloff,” gingery fried plantains called “kelewele” (pronounced kelay–welay), boiled “cassava” and a dish of black-eye peas called “watchi.” And there’s always a whole red snapper or other fish, dredged in flour and deep fried and served with a fiery hot fresh pepper sauce.

“The eye is usually the favorite part,” Impraim says. “People are always trying to get that. I can’t do it, but everybody fights over the eye.”

Tastes of the Caribbean

There will be no turkey on Carmencita Whonder’s Thanksgiving table. Instead, there will be oxtail, curried goat, red snapper (fried or “escabeche”), ham, roast beef, vegetables and always, she says, rice and peas.

Whonder, a 36-year-old financial services expert at a Washington, D.C. law firm, is only the second member of her family to be born in the U.S. rather than Jamaica. Her family celebrated Thanksgiving with a turkey when she was growing up, but they always had the Jamaican dishes as well. Her grandmother – the cook in the family – stuffed the turkey with white rice cooked with the turkey’s kidney and liver, scallions and plenty of seasoning.

“Everyone only liked the leg, neck or wings,” Whonder says. “No one liked the breast.” So they tossed the turkey but kept Whonder’s mint cranberry sauce and the Jamaican specialties.

“Interestingly, we didn’t have the things you would find on the tables of black families – collard greens, candied yams, homemade dressing,” she says. She was introduced to those foods as a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Whonder’s family also eschews traditional Thanksgiving pies in favor of rum cakes and ice cream. Whonder makes rum raisin ice cream for her grandmother – the family matriarch who no longer cooks the Thanksgiving feast as she once did.

Germans in Iowa

Elizabeth Becker’s childhood Thanksgivings began in the hottest days of August in 1950s’ Iowa. That was when she and her five siblings began preparing the foods to go on the Thanksgiving relish tray, inspired by her grandmother’s German heritage.

Every August, Hulda Pieper Willenburg, took the Greyhound bus from her home in nearby Carroll to take charge of her six grandchildren and the relish tray. Willenburg was a third generation Iowan and German speaker. For several days, under her supervision, the children would make “Grandma’s interpretation of the German pickle recipes she had learned from her mother and grandmother,” Becker, a 65-year-old journalist, says.

In preparation, Becker’s father bought crates of fresh vegetables and fruit from the farmers who parked their pickups around the Crawford County Courthouse in Denison, Iowa.

“We pickled beets, cucumbers (of course), and watermelon rind. We pickled corn. The kitchen was a steam bath. Vinegar tickled our noses. And our arms were limp from hand grinding carrots, cucumbers, onions and celery for her prized relish recipe,” Becker says.

Then her grandmother mixed the raw vegetables with dill, peppercorns and vinegar, ladled it into Mason jars and tightly sealed the lids. The kids didn’t have to help with the sauerkraut that Willenburg made, in one big batch, at her own house.

This cut-glass relish dish has been used at many of Elizabeth Becker’s family Thanksgiving dinners to hold the German-style pickles she and her siblings made under her grandmother’s supervision./Photo courtesy of Lee Hoagland

“Three months later, we transformed our cut-glass relish tray into a work of art,” says Becker. “The red pickled beets were spooned into the center section, separating the green sweet pickles from the sour dills and the boring bread and butters, and in pride of place, the mound of Grandma’s relish that we ate like a chutney with the turkey. What a wonderful youth – saved from bland white turkey meat by Grandma’s pickled relish.”

Injecting essence of Pakistan

Noureen Chohan remembers the first time she encountered a turkey, and the doctor friend who tried to give it some flavor.

“We had to mix up the spices, and he brought these huge syringes from the hospital and literally injected the bird,” says the 50-year-old Washington, D.C., interior architect. “He took traditional tandoori spice and injected the turkey with that. We tried different ways to make this bird taste better.”

But that was about 20 years ago, and since then she has become a Thanksgiving expert. Over the years, Chohan, who was raised in Lahore, Pakistan, has tweaked the classics to reflect her tastes. Mashed potatoes morphed into potato bhujia, potatoes fried in cumin, coriander and chili. Stuffing became biryani, a baked rice dish, and cornbread got studded with jalapeno peppers.  And who needs cranberry sauce when you can have …

“Fresh mango chutney,” she says. “Mango chutney tastes so good with turkey.”

Thursday’s meal will start with a traditional South Asian soup of yellow dhal spiced with cumin, black pepper, chili and garlic. Alongside the turkey, they’ll have Lahori-style fish, seasoned with tons of coriander, cumin, chili and garam masala, then fried. The yams will come with marshmallows, pineapple and raisins. And that turkey goes with the mango chutney gets something new this year.

“I met someone who does a Southern recipe for turkey,” she says. So Tom will be brined in apple cider and kosher salt, and roasted with cracked pepper and garlic.


Makes 6 to 8 servings


This vanilla custard is a traditional part of Ivelisse Ortiz Carrero’s Thanksgiving table. She also serves a guava cake. This is adapted from her recipe for flan.


  • 2 ¾ cups sugar, divided
  • 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Cinnamon


In an 8- or 10-inch round soufflé dish, pour ¾ cup sugar and heat over medium heat to make syrup. Move it around while over heat so the bottom is covered with browned syrup.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a blender, mix evaporated milk, remaining 2 cups sugar, eggs and vanilla. Pour mixture into pan with syrup. Sprinkle cinnamon on top.

Place pan in larger pan filled with hot water. Cook about an hour, or until a sharp knife comes out clean.

Let cool, place serving plate on top and turn over, so syrup is on top of flan. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, then slice and serve.

*This recipe is from a home cook and has not been tested by AFR.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Ghanaian Fresh Pepper

Call it a relish, call it a pickle, call it a salsa. Just eat it with fried fish or meat. This recipe comes courtesy of Esi Impraim, who says “I love super spicy food so 1/2 a habanero with the seeds is perfect for me, but if you like a weaker spice replace the habanero with a red chili or a pinch of red chili flakes.”


  • 1 beefsteak tomato
  • 1/4 medium onion
  • 1/2 habanero pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt


Place all ingredients in a blender and pulse until almost smooth.

*This recipe is from a home cook and has not been tested by AFR.

Makes 2 to 4 servings

Joloff Rice

This spicy, tomatoey rice dish is a staple of Ghanaian tables. This recipe comes courtesy of Esi Impraim.


  • 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 white onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 cup uncooked white rice


Pulse diced tomatoes in a blender until almost smooth.

In a large pot, heat oil and sauté onions until soft but not browned. Add garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook for about a minute and then add tomatoes. Add bouillon, cayenne, cumin, salt and pepper. Simmer until sauce has thickened then add the rice. Add 3/4 cup of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes until rice is fully cooked, stirring occasionally.

Makes about 1 cup

Mango Chutney

Sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time, mango chutney gives cranberry sauce a run for its money. Great with all meats, but especially rich meats such as turkey. This recipe comes courtesy of Noureen Chohan.


  • 1 medium green mango
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon red chili powder or cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon white vinegar


Peel the mango, remove the fruit and cut into thin slices. Mix the sugar, salt and chili powder and sprinkle over the mango. Mix thoroughly Let the mixture sit for a hour, until the mango releases juices.

Place the mixture in a small saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until fruit is tender and juices are syrupy, about 40 minutes. When mixture is thick, add vinegar, stir and bring to a boil. Remove immediately from the heat and let cool.

*This recipe is from a home cook and has not been tested by AFR.


7 Responses to Thanksgiving has international flavors

  1. Eddie November 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Fabulous article, I absolutely loved reading each individual take of the Thanksgiving Holiday. And the links to the recipes and explanations have really raised the level ten fold. Fantastic references and really heartfelt stories. Keep them coming!!

  2. Catherine November 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Would love to get the sticky rice stuffing recipe!

  3. Cindy Reeves December 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    One of my best memories was of a Thanksgiving long ago on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. I was completing my MPH at the University of Hawaii and I and a number of my classmates were all remaining in Hawaii for the holiday. We decided to plan our own potluck Thanksgiving with many of our international classmates and we had three tables full of wonderful foods from all over the world….food, the stuff of memories!

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal December 7, 2012 at 7:27 am #

      Cindy, what a wonderful experience and how very very Hawaii! I’m so glad you got to have that. I lived in Hawaii for 7 years and loved the way all the cultures there came to the table, and at Thanksgiving in particular. I did a story for the New York Times ages ago about cooking the Thanksgiving turkey in the imu – the underground oven used for luaus — and the way all the flavors and cultures mix down there in the oven. When you have a moment, you may also enjoy our profile of Hawaii in the 50 States section.

  4. Gayle Krughoff December 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    Love the stories, and the AFR site. But you’re not helping me with my resolution to stop clipping recipes. Green mango chutney . . . .yum.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal December 7, 2012 at 7:30 am #

      Never stop clipping recipes. It’s inspiration.

    • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
      Michele Kayal December 7, 2012 at 7:30 am #

      also, btw, Gayle, I finished off that mango chutney last night (with a HOT DOG) and it was delicious. Certainly elevated my fridge scavenge.