Making a traditional American Thanksgiving in Beijing

Our family skipped the hassle of finding traditional American ingredients and the inefficiencies of using a Chinese gas oven by having our feast catered by Sequoia Cafe. Canadian chef Billy Kawaja shows off all the brining turkeys. - Contributed photo
Our family skipped the hassle of finding traditional American ingredients and the inefficiencies of using a Chinese gas oven by having our feast catered by Sequoia Cafe. Canadian chef Billy Kawaja shows off all the brining turkeys.
— image credit: Contributed photo

One way to reflect on Thanksgiving is the amazing unison with which almost every American sits down and feasts on the fourth Thursday of the month. Sure, there are family and regional variations, but the table always stars a big turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, side dishes and multiple desserts.

The communality of that day, shared with your fellow Americans, is just as important as remembering what you are truly grateful for. Our family of five, now living in Beijing, wanted that sense of kinship with Americans more than usual and craved the traditional American feast.

The big question was how to conjure up this traditional Thanksgiving in China. The Beijing chat group of nearly 2,000 expats whizzed back and forth with questions: where to find lard for pie crusts? Are cranberries sold in China — what are the Chinese characters? The Thanksgiving shopping trip is not filling a cart at QFC but a two-week long scavenger trip, hunting down elusive ingredients and Chinese equivalents. The hunt is exasperating in that Chinese supermarkets are not all-inclusive, and the same supermarket chain can carry a different range of goods from its sister stores. Some ingredients aren’t in China at all, even at stores geared toward expats; graham crackers for cheesecake crusts are simply not imported. I resorted to crushing Teddy Graham cookies with chocolate chips. Some ingredients are available, but I turned down the Philly cream cheese three years past its expiration date.

Turkeys are not common at all in China. Turkeys are considered tasteless and thus are not in demand and are quite pricey. I think the Chinese eat for any/all of three reasons: 1) cheap, 2) tasty or 3) medicinal. Turkey fails on all accounts. Thus, the hunt for the big bird will turn up turkeys which are frozen and flown in from the United States. At a couple of expat-oriented stores, I found them for 620 RMB! ($91!) At the San Yuan Li market — open booths selling where all appears available — they were selling for 200 RMB ($29). Have they been frozen, thawed and refrozen? That’s a question I skipped asking.

After a preliminary hunt for key ingredients, I returned home and stared at my oven. At home on Mercer Island, I had a double oven with two racks each. Here, one small oven with one rack. Decision made. I turned my pursuit to restaurants. In the expat magazines, five to eight restaurants — almost all in the big-name Western hotels — offered Thanksgiving buffets for 200-500 RMB per person ($29-71). This seemed pricey and inconvenient after a day of work and school, so I was delighted to find that a Sequoia Café catered the whole nine-yard dinner. I ordered the dinner — my choice of turkey and four sides/desserts — and sent the driver off with a deposit.

I did prepare the desserts, as my children have their favorites. Baking is excruciating here. First, Chinese sugar is made of castor oil or sugar cut with beets and thus does not bake well. No problem; my husband brought sugar back from his earlier business trip. Butter sticks are expensive and come in non-standardized sizes. And my oven, with its oxymoronic temperature control, has the meanest temperament. To start the oven, I dial and push in the starter and count for 45 seconds. It may or may not catch, in which case I start again. I watch the oven as it usually has a few false starts and dies after five minutes. The temperature rises, passes the intended temperature and slumps down. I adjust it and bring it back roughly to the desired temperature. Twenty-five minutes into baking, it quits and I must start it once again. For my second dessert, I pulled a chair next to the oven and kept my finger on the dial for the last 20 minutes.

Finally, the big day arrived. It did not feel like a big day because it was not a lazy one filled with the Macy’s NYC parade, the trickling in of relatives, the long hours talking and cooking in the kitchen. Instead, the kids had 7.5 hours of school, and my husband worked a full day at the office. Off to Sequoia Café, I went to pick up my big dinner, which was pleasantly very well prepared as promised. It was a surprise — a bit of a link to home — to learn that the chef was Canadian and the manager was from Bellevue. Back at home, everyone arrived home tired, but had a second wind to have such an American feast. Not to sound trite, but we truly felt grateful, and after so much Chinese food for the last four months, relished every mouthful of our traditional feast.

Stowe, mother of three children and Mercer Island activist of sorts, is cataloguing the highlights and cultural surprises of China in her blog:

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