‘Peking turkey’? At Thanksgiving in the United States, it’s on at least one Chinese menu

  • Chinese restaurants in New York and Washington decide whether to cater to American holiday traditions, or not
  • While some restaurateurs maintain a culinary purist streak, others are happy to incorporate Western foods on the American holiday
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 2:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 9:45am

When US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was being grilled by Senator Lindsey Graham during her confirmation hearing in 2010, the lawmaker asked her what she had been doing on Christmas Day.

The question was raised to examine the Supreme Court nominee’s thoughts about how to adjudicate the case of the “underwear bomber”, who had attempted to bring down a commercial jet en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009, but Kagan turned the exchange into a light moment.

“Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” she responded, sparking a bout of knowing laughter from the hearing’s audience.

While many are aware of the “Jewish Christmas” tradition in America – Chinese food and a movie – the Thanksgiving Day draw to Chinese food isn’t such a cultural phenomenon. For one thing, Thanksgiving in the United States is a secular family holiday, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, so many restaurants are not open.

This is especially the case when the restaurant isn’t located in a very ethnic enclave such as New York City’s heavily Chinese neighbourhood of Flushing, in the borough of Queens.

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But RedFarm, a Chinese restaurant with locations in the affluent Upper West Side and West Village areas of Manhattan, decided five years ago to go all-out for Thanksgiving by offering “Peking turkey”, and its gamble has paid off.

“No one used to come out to eat Chinese food on Thanksgiving,” said RedFarm’s owner, Ed Schoenfeld, whose business partner, Hong Kong-born chef Joe Ng, has come up with Chinese dishes that incorporate American ingredients.

“Joe takes things that are typically American and says to himself, ‘from my Chinese point of view, how can I recreate these dishes and make them better?’”

Ng’s year-round Chinese-American selections include, for example, pastrami egg rolls, using the classic New York deli offering as its base ingredient.

Schoenfeld ordered 80 turkeys this year. Patrons dining in will pay US$68 for half a bird, along with pancakes and condiments, including three sauces: hoisin, a peanut-sesame emulsion and one with cranberries as the base.

For US$175, RedFarm offers a full 10lb to 12lb turkey takeaway package that includes sautéed string beans, sautéed pumpkin and mushroom “long-life” noodles as well as the pancakes and sauces.

Schoenfeld rented extra kitchen space to handle the task of roasting so many turkeys. And they won’t go to waste. Two days before Thanksgiving, tables were already fully booked for the dinner.

RedFarm isn’t the only Chinese restaurant making special arrangements for the American holiday.

On Monday afternoon, Chinatown Garden in Washington was already rearranging tables and testing its in-house karaoke system in preparation for Thanksgiving, which will see a party of 50 tourists from China bused to the restaurant for a holiday feast.

Chinese tourists aside, the holiday would also mean an uptick in local Chinese-American customers and non-Chinese families who want a change from traditional Thanksgiving fare, said the restaurant’s head of public relations, Grace Wang. Customers would dine amid “American style” decorations, she said, like posters of turkeys.

Thursday’s party of 50 tourists, who will take up the restaurant’s entire third floor, has requested turkey, which will be brought out and sliced ceremoniously in front of them – a sight not all that foreign for anyone who has eaten Peking duck.

They were curious to know, said Wang: “What are American people doing for Thanksgiving?”

But around the corner at the hugely popular Reren noodle restaurant, owner Leopold Liao is steering clear of any Thanksgiving-inspired alterations to his decor or menu.

The decision isn’t surprising, given Liao’s purist streak. “In Chinatown you really don’t have any real Chinese food,” said the 30-year-old from Inner Mongolia, who opened the eatery in 2016 after growing tired of Americanised Chinese food. Long waiting times suggest customers tend to agree.

Liao experimented with incorporating turkey into his noodle dishes the previous two Thanksgivings, but decided it wasn’t worth the extra hassle for his kitchen staff, whom he expects to serve up to 800 people, around double the traffic of a standard Thursday.

“This year I’m going to stay with what I have,” he said, “because that’s good enough.”

While few Chinese restaurants are known for bringing classic American ingredients into their dishes for Thanksgiving or any US holiday, they will do a brisk business on the day.

The owner of Panda Gourmet in Washington has upgraded the restaurant’s interior decorations with two three-metre-high (10-foot) statues of Chinese warriors before the holidays but is not adding American touches to its menu.

Founded five years ago by Chinese businessman Liu Qi, Panda Gourmet is known for its authentic Sichuan food.

Manager James Liu said the restaurant always got “a lot of traffic” on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, when most local restaurants would be closed.

“Foreigners and Chinese-Americans will come here to enjoy the authentic Chinese cuisine,” Liu said, “not localised or Americanised food.”

At Flushing’s Yu Garden Dumpling House, a tucked-away hole-in-the-wall Shanghai cuisine joint, “serving the Chinese with Chinese food” is how the owners like to run the business throughout the year.

“We don’t want to Americanise. We will be open on Thanksgiving, but we cater to the local customers that do not eat turkey for the holiday, and we won’t serve it,” said manager Zhu Ruofan, 31, who runs the business the family opened five years ago.

“Thanksgiving is not a holiday to celebrate for most Chinese living in this neighbourhood. Instead, it is a day off for families to have an excuse to get together and eat good Chinese meals.”

The neighbourhood of Flushing – which has New York City’s second-largest Chinese community – is home to more than 30,000 Chinese residents. The density of the population has created a predominant culture, and is where the most genuine Chinese food can be found in the metropolitan area.

Zhu’s mother-in-law, Qiuping, the sole dumpling maker for Yu Garden, made dim sum for the Pacific Hotel, one of the largest restaurants in Shanghai, for more than two decades.

To cater to Western tastes, she adjusted the flavour of the dumpling’s pork filling, but it is largely the original recipe. “My goal is to serve the authentic Shanghainese xiaolongbao, which is hard to find in New York,” Quiping said.

Sitting at the round banquet table near the door, a Western family of five was enjoying fried dough with red bean filling. Nancy Rosenthal, the family’s 88-year-old grandmother who lives in South Carolina, said the family loves Chinese food and eats it at least twice a month.

Rosenthal said she was thrilled by the choice of Chinese restaurants nowadays. When she lived in Flushing in 1952, there was only one Chinese restaurant, Lum’s, she said.

Said Zhu, who moved to New York 10 years ago: “Remaining authentic is my philosophy to attract higher-end Chinese foodies to come to enjoy real Shanghainese food.”

That authenticity may have been what attracted Anthony Bourdain, the late host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, to pay an unexpected visit in 2016 and described the dumplings as “everything you need in life”.

“Most of the Chinese restaurants will be open for Thanksgiving in Flushing,” Zhu said. “But if they are in Manhattan, that’s a different story.”

Asked about their plans for Thursday, Rosenthal said: “Well, we are not going to have Chinese food on Thanksgiving. But that Saturday, we will!”