Every Thanksgiving, generations of immigrant families have eaten, or at least tried to eat, the traditional Thanksgiving turkey. It's a dish prized for its simplicity. A roasted turkey rubbed with salt and pepper, stuffed with a delicious mix of breadcrumbs, chopped celery, onion and seasonings. Some of us get fancier than that, but that's the gist, right?
But here's a little secret: some newcomers, and not-so-newcomers, tend to find the classic American bird a little bland, so they tweak the traditional turkey to fit their culture and palates. KPCC reporter Leslie Berestein-Rojas is here to give us a taste of what different families in Southern California bring to the table.
Every Thanksgiving I've heard my Cuban dad say the same thing "sabe a corcho," he thinks it tastes like cork. And I've heard people who's parents have come from the other side of the planet and they related more or less the same stories.
Not to disrespect the turkey, but unless you come from somewhere in the world where turkey's eaten and even if you do come from a place where turkey is eaten but the food is a little spicier or more savory, the classic butter-basted bird is a little mild.
It's a tradition and its a novelty for newcomers, but some people will try it once or twice and then they'll go back to eating what they'd normally eat for a holiday, tamales, pork. kabob, duck. Some families now, the first generation, they'll tolerate the turkey and the mashed potatoes once a year just so the kids can have it. This is where it starts getting creative, because people start adapting the turkey to their tastes.
This is what's lead to restaurants and delis in immigrant enclaves all over L.A. to start concocting their own Thanksgiving turkey meals for customers. For example, Mexican Oaxacan-style turkey or Chinese-style turkey.
It's interesting because turkey is eaten in Southern Mexico for special occasions, but its eaten very differently. A true Oaxacan style turkey isn't a big ceremonial bird, it's stewed, served in mole, so that's where the assimilation part comes in. When Oaxacans come here to the U.S. and they encounter Thanksgiving its not the turkey that they know.
Here's how Bricia Lopez of the Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza describes her family's turkey: "When we heard about the turkey we were like, 'Oh great, we're going to eat turkey again.' We never thought about cooking it the way Americans cook it, we started putting spices in there. My mom's version of stuffing has chorizo in it, which is typically totally Oaxacan."
This version of stuffing goes really well with a turkey seasoned with chiles and herbs, and then it's served, of course, with black mole. Her mom, restaurant owner Maria de Jesus Lopez, started making this at home for her family, but then she started making these orders for Thanksgiving customers at the restaurant. She was busy this week making orders and she showed me what goes into the stuffing.
"We use bell pepper, celery, rosemary and jalapeño chile and some walnuts and apples. We put it with bread, Mexicans we use bolillo, like a french roll, and we want to put some chorizo," said Maria Lopez.
It's a real mix of customers who order Maria's turkeys, they tell me it's about 50-percent Mexican and 50-percent everyone else who wants to try a Oaxacan style turkey tastes like. Interestingly, they say a lot of Mexican-American customers who come in are more assimilated, second generation, their first-generation parents are still cooking their own meals.
Then there's a Chinese-style turkey, which is described as like a Chinese roasted duck. Manager Eric Yu at the U2 Cafe in Alhambra, he says they expect to sell about 500 birds this year.
"We marinate the turkey and then we put comes seasoning and Chinese herbs.," said Yu. "Then we hold it to blow it until the skin is crispy and dry. After that we put it in the oven and bake it for an hour and a half…a lot of Chinese or Americans love it."
Of course they don't serve it with mashed potatoes you can take yours with a side of rice or noodles, and there are some places the stuff the bird with sticky rice.
Now these are just some of the turkeys that people are ordering to take home, but a lot of this creativity is going on in individual kitchens all over town and you're likely to encounter turkeys that are seasoned Vietnamese style, Indian style, Cuban style, you name it.
I've eaten Cuban-style turkey for years. The answer is mojo, there's this garlicky, sour orange marinade that Cubans use and they usually marinate pork in it, the ceremonial meat that we'll eat for Christmas. So he's spent years marinating this turkey trying his best to make it taste like lechón and it kind of worked, it still tasted like turkey, but it smelled fantastic.