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Asian American Foodways at Thanksgiving

For over a year, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum has been working with a team of local residents to document the diversity and influence of Asian Pacific American foods and cuisines in the Washington, D.C., region. Among the highlights is the creativity many Asian American home cooks bring to the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Project curator Kevin Kim has collected artifacts, interviews, and photographs from local Asian American food businesses, many of which have developed new models that draw on both Asian and American traditions to serve a diverse clientele. For instance, Lotte Plaza Market, which launched in the 1970s, has transformed from a Korean market in Rockville, Md., into a supermarket chain known for stocking specialty products used in Asian, Latinx and other world cuisines. In Vienna, Va., Sobann recently launched a meal kit delivery service that provides healthy, ready-to-cook meals that introduce Korean cooking to busy families looking to expand their dinner options. In Silver Spring, Md., artist Mea Rhee of Good Elephant Pottery creates traditional Korean-style buncheong ware (or Hakeme in Japanese) plates and bowls that incorporate local motifs, such as the Maryland blue crab. The collection is remarkable for its breadth and the connections it highlights across the region.

A typical holiday meal in Allison Qiu's household includes steamed blue crab with Old Bay seasoning, vegetable fried rice, and chicken soup slow cooked with the chicken's neck, feet, and liver/gizzard, and dry shiitake mushrooms.
A typical holiday meal in Allison Qiu’s household includes steamed blue crab with Old Bay seasoning, vegetable fried rice, and chicken soup slow cooked with the chicken’s neck, feet, and liver/gizzard, and dry shiitake mushrooms.

Outside the public realm, many home cooks combine Asian and American influences in their cooking and meal preparation. Project Curators Anh Duong and Xinqian “Allison” Qiu are part of a team who worked with the Museum to self-document their own foodways, and those of their family members and friends. As scholars of food, and home cooks themselves, they are keenly aware of the ways food brings not only sustenance but also connections to others, rootedness in place, a sense of identity and well-being. The result is a rich collection that reflects the favorite dishes, cooking implements, pantries and home gardens of local Asian American residents, along with their thoughts and perspectives about food.

For Thanksgiving this week, they will bring a personal twist to the meal they prepare for their families. Allison, who grew up in southern China and lives in Northeast Washington, will prepare a whole chicken, rather than a turkey. She points out that chicken is considered to bring luck because the Mandarin Chinese word for chicken (鸡Jī) sounds like the word for good luck (吉Jí). The chicken will be marinated overnight with Chinese Five Spices (star anis, peppercorn, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon), salt, white pepper and other condiments, and brushed with honey and soy sauce before roasting. Dinner will also feature steamed blue crab with Old Bay seasoning, vegetable stir fry, oven-baked butternut squash, and chicken soup slow cooked with the chicken’s neck, feet, and liver/gizzard, and dry shiitake mushrooms. Her daughter has requested traditional Thanksgiving apple and pecan pies for dessert.

Anh, who comes from Vietnam and lives in College Park, Md., will serve duck for Thanksgiving. In preparation, the fowl will be wet brined overnight per the American tradition, with a mixture of water, salt, sugar, garlic powder, white pepper, cooking wine and coconut water. Next, it will be dry brined with a mixture of butter, chicken bouillon cubes, lemongrass puree, cinnamon powder, white pepper, garlic powder, and honey. Following French tradition, the bird will be stuffed with fruit including apple, pear, orange. Anh serves the duck with tamarind sauce made from meat juices, sugar and tamarind paste, or cuts and rolls it in rice paper with rice noodles, herbs, and shredded mango. Other dishes include mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables freshly picked from her garden, and an assortment of pies for dessert.

As a holiday premised on a meeting of cultures — from the mythical feast between Native Americans and Pilgrims, to the myriad ways America’s diverse population celebrates today — Thanksgiving offers an opportunity to pause and consider the sources of our food, and the richness of our shared traditions.

Visit the exhibition Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington. For information about hours & programming, visit Anacostia.si.edu.

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