This Buzzfeed piece about what Chinese students think of American food is hilarious (“Clam Chowder” MILK IN SOUP? NO) and reminded me of the year I tried to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for 30-some Taiwanese friends when I was living in Taiwan for a year teaching English at a university.
Matt, my boyfriend at the time (now a well-regarded chef in New York), was my partner in this well-intentioned comedy of errors.
What’s central to this tale is the fact that, generally speaking, the Chinese (and most Asian cultures) do not eat turkey. You might wonder why a culture that seemingly eats almost anything, including chicken’s feet, goat, dog, bugs, and strange-looking things from the sea, would shun turkey. The answer is simple: They relish flavor and fat and turkey is basically lacking in both. There’s a reason we Americans tend to eat it just once a year and go through elaborate orchestrations (brines, rubs) to make it as juicy as possible.
Still, it was Thanksgiving, we were homesick, and we wanted to share our customs with the people who’d so generously been welcoming us to theirs.
So, where to procure the turkey? They weren’t sold in supermarkets and we hadn’t seen any at the outdoor markets. In our rudimentary Mandarin we spoke to an older woman at a nearby market and inquired about the bird. She looked at us strangely and asked “Wei Shi Ma?” Why?
Eventually, though, we secured a deal—or so we thought. She’d have a turkey (a dead one we emphasized) for us the following week, just a couple days before Thanksgiving.
When we went to pick it up, we realized our previous conversation hadn’t gone as well as we’d thought. The turkey was there, yes. It wasn’t alive, good. But it hadn’t been plucked or butchered as we’d thought we’d successfully requested. After much back and forth, she agreed to have it de-feathered and butchered by the next day, just one day before Thanksgiving. We thanked her and hoped she understood us. Thankfully, she did.
Next obstacle: no oven. Keep in mind that most Asian cultures cook their food in woks. This means most of the population doesn’t have ovens in their homes. Our apartment was no exception. Again, my resourceful boyfriend had a plan. All over the streets were old metal oil barrels. He figured he could essentially build an oven with one – and that the turkey could be cooked on it. It all seemed like a grand idea, until he actually lit it. The barrel that was once filled with oil (minor detail) started a fire on our residential street near the university. This was on Thanksgiving morning, and our big dinner was planned for late that afternoon. We had a fire that needed professional extinguishing, angry neighbors, and a raw turkey.
Now what? We remembered that a guy from New Zealand who owned an Italian restaurant downtown was cooking turkeys in his industrial oven for expats that year. We jumped on our moped and high-tailed it over there with our bird and begged him to throw ours into the mix. At this point, we were really pushing it on time. If it didn’t get into the oven NOW, it wouldn’t be ready for the feast. Fortunately, he took pity on us and, four hours later, our turkey was ready.
Meanwhile, sans oven, I was making batch after batch of stuffing in our apartment’s tiny toaster oven, enough to feed 30 people. Do the math. It was painstaking. Ditto the sweet potatoes. Fortunately, we’d had the foresight to order pies from an expat ahead of time.
Just before our friends began filing into the university banquet room, Matt was whizzing back on his moped with the turkey strapped on tightly to the back. With the help of some expat friends, I was lugging over plates of stuffing and sweet potatoes by foot. Everyone cheered when Matt came in with the turkey and went to work carving.
It was a wonderful feeling to be feeding our foreign friends the food we ritually eat every November.
Our Taiwanese friends politely ate the turkey but in the end they declared it mama hu hu (which translates literally to “horse horse tiger tiger” and means so-so). We hadn’t converted them to turkey lovers. Were they bewildered by our tradition? Yes. Would we have done it all over again? Absolutely. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.