How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Happy Thanksgiving, LA style

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Maria de Jesus Lopez, co-owner of of the Guelaguetza restaurant in Los Angeles' Koreatown, grinds spices to prepare one her Oaxacan-style turkeys for a Thanksgiving dinner order. November 20, 2012

Perhaps more than any other day of the year, Thanksgiving as celebrated by immigrants and their families shines a bright light on their assimilation process. On this most American of holidays, part of that process involves what to eat.

Take the turkey. Please don't take this as a slight against the traditional holiday bird, but those of us from other countries don't all love it. At least not as it's prepared - very simply, let's say - on Thanksgiving. If you come from a part of the world in which turkey is not a staple - or for that matter, if you do, but your native cuisine is more savory - the standard butter-basted bird is just, well, kind of uninteresting. 

Some families forego the turkey for other traditional holiday foods - tamales, roast pork, kebab, duck, you name it. There are inter-generational battles, with the second and third generations  pushing for turkey while the elders would prefer something else. And this is when cross-cultural creativity kicks in, as in "hmm, I’ve got this big, bland-tasting bird to cook. How can I spice it up?"

That's prompted restaurants and delis in some of Los Angeles' immigrant enclaves to come up with something delicious and truly American: a Thanksgiving turkey dinner adapted to the tastes of their own cultures. For example, customers can order a Mexican Oaxacan-style turkey dinner with all the fixings (don't count on gravy, there's chocolatey black mole instead), or a crispy-skinned Chinese-style turkey prepared in a manner similar to Chinese roasted duck. 

I visited a couple of these places this week and learned a bit of what goes into these delectable birds, who eats them, and how these recipes came to be. Listen to the audio at left for the details, or to yesterday's segment on KPCC's Take Two.

Of course, some of the most creative cross-cultural cooking will happen in family kitchens all over the Southland, where generations and tastes will collide and the results, with any luck, will be delicious.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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