'A day of thanks': 4 chefs honor an all-American holiday with a diverse blend of dishes

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Louisa Shafia makes a dish called fesenjan, a traditional stew that she will incorporate into her Thanksgiving meal to honor her Iranian heritage, in her kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

When Louisa Shafia was a child growing up in Philadelphia, a truce would settle around the Thanksgiving table. It was where her mother, an American-raised Ashkenazi Jew, and her dad, raised Muslim in Iran, found peace over the food they enjoyed together.

"Thanksgiving carries a lot of symbolism for me in terms of my childhood," said Shafia, whose book, "The New Persian Kitchen," explores her Iranian heritage. "It was neutral territory. Even though they're still married, my parents came from really different cultures."

On Thanksgiving, any religious tensions in her parents' otherwise agreeable marriage would melt away, and the family would focus instead on covering the table with an array of dishes weaving together American and Iranian traditions.

Her father would rise before dawn and begin work on the adas pollo, an Iranian dish of basmati rice, fragrant with saffron, studded with lentils and raisins, and garnished with fresh dill he gathered from a local market. He would labor in secret throughout the day, revealing the rice with a flourish at the Thanksgiving table. 

Louisa Shafia breaks up the pomegranate into a bowl to make a dish called fesenjan, a traditional stew that she will incorporate into her Thanksgiving meal to honor her Iranian heritage, in her kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Shafia's mother in her own nook of the kitchen would labor over fesenjan, a crowning jewel among her repertoire of traditional Persian dishes she learned to make when she married an Iranian.

Fesenjan, an ancient stew of fowl in a rich mole-like sauce of ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses and spices, is often served during the Persian winter solstice holiday of Shab-e Yalda. It's garnished with bright pomegranate seeds to symbolize the light and life that will follow the winter. 

"It's just this thick, bright deeply flavorful magical combination of bitter walnuts and tart, sweet pomegranate molasses," Shafia said. 

Louisa Shafia makes a dish called fesenjan, a traditional stew that she will incorporate into her Thanksgiving meal to honor her Iranian heritage, in her kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

It can be made with any fowl, or even tofu, but for Thanksgiving it's turkey, she said. "It's really all about the sauce; it doesn't really matter what you put in there."

Now, Shafia lives in Nashville with her 5-year-old son Dante Bijan. On Thanksgiving, she'll have dinner with Dante and invite some of her dearest friends and her family over for dinner. 

Her friends will bring the dishes they love most, and Thanksgiving will become a hodgepodge of cultures, befitting its identity as a very American holiday.

Shafia will serve fragrant basmati rice with a flourish and sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the fesenjan, inviting light to the table.

The recipe: Pomegranate-walnut stew, or fesenjan

Honoring Indigenous ancestors

Dave Smoke-McCluskey is a member of The Mohawk Nation and an Indigenous food scholar.

Dave Smoke-McCluskey, founder of Corn Mafia and Indigenous foodways educator, celebrates Thanksgiving with his wife and son, Finn, in Augusta, Georgia.

Smoke-McCluskey, who's part Mohawk, part Irish and part English, acknowledges the holiday can be fraught for some of his peers with Indigenous heritage.

"But you can't change the past," he said. "Ultimately, it's a day of thanks."

To start the meal, Smoke-McCluskey gives what he calls a Thanksgiving address, honoring those who have come before him and expressing gratitude for their building spirit. 

He also sets intentions for what's to come, as part of the Native American belief system demands that gratitude should permeate your life. 

"The idea of putting one day aside for giving thanks points to folks not being thankful the rest of the year, or cognizant of their need to be," he said. "It's probably something we all should do more of and don't."

Like many Americans, Smoke-McCluskey sets the table with a roasted turkey as the centerpiece. The turkey, he said, was first domesticated in the U.S. by Indigenous Americans, and its prominent place on the table is symbolic. 

The traditional American Thanksgiving table often borrows from the Native American three sisters: squash, beans and corn. Smoke-McCluskey's table is no different. 

"A lot of traditional American food is highly influenced by Native American culture," Smoke-McCluskey said.

The recipe: Creamy Southern corn pone with a delicate crisp

Turkey rezala and brioche stuffing

Thanksgiving was important to chef Akhtar Nawab’s mother, but not because it was part of her tradition. As an immigrant from India, she wanted her children to understand their new country and Louisville, Kentucky, where the family eventually settled.

“She wanted my brother and I to feel like we fit in to some extent,” said Nawab, who now specializes in Mexican cuisine with his restaurants Alta Calidad in Brooklyn and Otra Vez in New Orleans.

Chef Akhtar Nawab works in the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant, Otra Vez. (Courtesy Otra Vez)

His mother blended Indian food with American Thanksgiving fare, creating dishes like turkey rezala, a braise with yogurt, saffron, cardamom, ginger and turmeric. As Nawab became interested in cooking, he added American dishes like brioche stuffing and hearty root vegetables.

When the boys went away to college, however, they only wanted traditional Indian food when they came home for Thanksgiving. The holiday also grew in importance to Nawab’s mom, because it brought her boys home.

“I think for my mom, it was a real culture shock. Kids don’t usually go away to college,” Nawab said. “The whole notion of an empty nester didn’t really exist for my mom.”

Chef:How an Indian-American from Kentucky became a Mexican chef

Sahar Siddiqi's Friendsgiving

Sahar Siddiqi, chef de cuisine at Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, is a first-generation Pakistani American who adores the food traditions surrounding Thanksgiving. 

"We've always been huge on Thanksgiving," she said. "It's our favorite holiday, especially since I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas, so Thanksgiving was the American holiday we celebrated."

The table was always laden with the traditional holiday classics, she said, with a few Pakistani dishes thrown in the mix. Siddiqi's mother believed no celebratory table was complete unless it was laden with heaping bowls of fragrant biryani.

"No Southeast Asian meal is complete without the most amounts of carbs you can possibly fit on the table," Siddiqi said. 

The chef's work schedule is too hectic to allow for much travel, so she most often spends Thanksgiving in Atlanta.

There, she drags a huge table out on the deck to accommodate her friends who are family, many chefs. One year, 20 cooks showed up and threw an opulent, if not slightly disjointed, feast.

"There were foie gras biscuits and someone came with a truffle and shaved it in the mashed potatoes and there was bone marrow in the gravy," she said. "It was the most ridiculous Thanksgiving ever."

Siddiqi's Thanksgiving traditions remain a little left of center. For one, she slow-smokes, rather than roasts, a turkey in her Big Green Egg smoker. She also honors her Pakistani heritage with chukandar, or beet, sabzi.

"Beet sabzi is grated beets cooked in chili oil with onions and amchur powder," she explained. "It's sweet, spicy, sour and almost reminiscent of a cranberry sauce because it's bright red and cooked down until it's jammy."

If it strikes Thanksgiving traditionalists as weird, they have only to taste it. With its sweet acidity, it's an interesting stand-in for cranberry sauce and a great complement to turkey.

Siddiqi can't imagine a Thanksgiving table without it. 

Get the recipe: Chukandar Sabzi