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How NYC Residents Are Planning Comforting, Multicultural Thanksgivings During the Pandemic

For many first-generation New Yorkers, turkey isn’t the first dish that comes to mind on Thanksgiving

A large platter holding colorful small bowls of food and sauces, plus breads and rice
Rupali Agarwal’s Rajasthani-style thali for Thanksgiving
Enhance Your Palate [Official]

Two years ago, Gabriela Marchand, a resident of Sunnyside, Queens, decided that she would start a tradition of doing a multicultural food crawl on Thanksgiving Day to various restaurants in Jackson Heights.

“I’m from Puerto Rico, and my husband is from the United Kingdom,” she says, “It costs us nearly $1,000 to fly back home during Thanksgiving; so we just decided to go out and dine at Jackson Heights because it’s our favorite area.”

Last year, the couple started the crawl by eating beef momos at a food truck — either Amdo Kitchen, or Mom’s Momo — and then dined at Angel, an Indian restaurant. It’s on her list again this year, but only as a takeout option because of the pandemic. “Their vegetable dum biriyani is out of this world,” Marchand says. The couple ended their crawl at Pho Back in Elmhurst, where the couple shared a pho and bánh mì.

“This year, we might just call all these places and make sure we can do takeout, revisit some of our favorites, and enjoy them at home,” she says. “We don’t feel safe eating indoors, and we don’t want to risk it, but we may dine outdoors and still keep our traditions.”

Like Marchand, several other residents plan to eschew a traditional Thanksgiving in favor of the foods that they grew up with that bring them comfort.

Congolese playwright Brenton Weyi, who splits his time between New York City and Denver, Colorado where his parents live, cooked a Congolese meal for his mother two weeks ago, an act he plans to recreate for Thanksgiving.

Dishes including fufu, made with boiled and mashed cassava, as well as a peanut butter chicken stew, are on tap for the big day. “Covid was probably the most deciding factor to cook my dishes at home,” he says. “It’s not really easy being a first-generation child [when it comes to culinary choices] since I straddle these two worlds of being an American and African.”

He also plans to add a Lituma dish made out of plantains, and a stew called Fumbwa, and he may skip the traditional turkey entirely.

Japanese-Italian fashion designer Mariko Ichikawa, who lives in East Harlem, plans to do a cultural spin on the traditional turkey dinner, with traditional Japanese sides including a sweet potato dish called Yaki Imo using the Satsumaimo varietal, miso soup, Goma-ae (spinach with green beans), Japanese rice, a yakitori appetizer and a cake from a Japanese bakery.

“The Japanese mashed potato is a bit different than the American sweet potato; my dad likes to cook it over the fire,” she says, adding that her parents purchase most of their staples from NYC grocery store Mitsuwa. “My dad can’t not have rice at a meal.”

Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York says that comfort foods do have some health benefits. “More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is all about sharing a meal with family, friends and loved ones,” he says. “That’s comforting in itself, but I’m also a fan of also having culturally familiar foods that are comforting. The psychological lift we get from eating comfort foods works — in the short term.”

Bringing back childhood memories — which happens when eating the foods you grew up with — is not just for emotional eaters, he says, pointing to a recent study. With the stress and aftermath of the pandemic, it’s unsurprising that people are resorting to comfort foods and more cultural foods if that’s what they grew up with, especially during a major holiday.

Rupali Agarwal, who runs a recipe site, Enhance Your Palate, currently resides in Louisiana but says that she ships a large number of Indian snacks to NYC residents. She’s seen a huge spike in web traffic over the past year for her blog post on how to host a proper Rajasthani-style thali for Thanksgiving that debuted in 2019.

Some NYC-area restaurants are also preparing to offer Thanksgiving feasts that may or may not include turkey on the table.

Modern Cantonese spot Goosefeather in Tarrytown, New York, reversed its traditional menu of dim sum, Chinese barbecue and noodles in favor of an upscale American-style prix-fixe Thanksgiving menu.

Chef Dale Talde, who has helmed the restaurant since 2019, says that this is the only time in a year he gets to make a traditional stuffing, and will offer three courses including a roasted mushroom and chestnut soup, scallops, and slow-roasted turkey breast with butter and garlic. “Thanksgiving is a learned holiday for a lot of us,” he says of his Filipino background.

But since he was born in the United States, Talde looks forward to upscaling the staples that the holiday is known for. “I don’t want a fusion Thanksgiving because I make stuffing just about once a year, and I don’t make mashed potatoes or gravy almost ever,” he says.

But at Nai Tapas, the East Village restaurant helmed by chef Ruben Rodriguez who hails from Spain, the team serves a culturally-conscious Thanksgiving menu featuring a Catalan-style fideuà — a paella made with rice and seafood — that was introduced in 2017.

The popular menu attracts a wide range of customers. “Spaniards are actually the least of my customer base,” he says.

Rodriguez says that living and working in New York City has shaped his vision of the holiday. “Obviously, Thanksgiving is an American holiday and I was born and raised in Spain, but coming to New York City — and to its melting pot of cultures — it’s cool to celebrate culture and diversity,” Rodriguez says.