Tokyo Thanksgiving

Tokyo Thanksgiving

I am an unrepentant, old school, no-holds-barred lover of Thanksgiving. It is the holiday that I whole-heartedly endorse because, beyond all the pseudo-history and patriotic talk, it is unencumbered with religion and based around the wonderful (and secular!) idea of making a huge meal and hanging out with your friends and family and remembering to be thankful.  Plus, you get to eat Turkey sandwiches with Russian dressing all week and then make a huge pot of turkey broth. Like I said, it’s a great holiday.

For the past couple of years in Brooklyn our Thanksgiving ranged from 15 to almost 40 guests.  I loved it — the more the merrier.  Many of our guests — owing to my wife — were Japanese and I felt a certain responsibility to not only provide great food but to infect them with my enthusiasm for a true American Thanksgiving.  I went overboard with cooking — two turkeys were common! Once I smoked a turkey and roasted another (An aside: smoking a turkey is a very time-consuming process that did not yield the wonders that I imagined.  The breast meat became very dense, and while delicious, fared much better in the left-over department than as a main course.) The basic, overall meal was typically something like this: Squash soup, Roasted turkey, roasted vegetables (Green onion, endive, root veggies), stuffing, cranberry sauce & relish, mashed potatoes, gravy, a few Japanese dishes my wife would prepare, purple cabbage slaw, wild rice with mushrooms and of course various pies. My stuffing, no matter what, always sucked.  It tasted yummy — a basic blend of cornbread, sausage, celery, onion and herbs — but something was always off.  Occasionally I would remember an ingredient from a Thanksgiving past (port wine!) and try it out to disastrous effect (purple tinted stuffing) but generally I failed with the ratio of liquid to solids because I can’t fully understand the nature of stuffing and I loathe the idea of actually stuffing it inside a turkey where it would rob me of all those luscious drippings for gravy.  So, my stuffing sucked, but generally everything else was pretty stellar — moist, flavorful turkey; decadent, buttery mashed potatoes; loads of smooth, unctuous gravy —  and I was fortunate to have friends that came through with some real goodies (a heavenly pork loin that we wrapped in rosemary and pan roasted from a butcher friend, bottles of great wine and beer and tequila from my less meat-minded friends).  Beyond the food, I just loved those Thanksgivings as I had loved them always — eating and laughing and drinking far too much with the sound of kids yelling and playing and the snore of that one guest who always had to lay down on the sofa for “just five minutes”.  I am secure knowing that I sort of ruled at being a Thanksgiving zealot and I do believe I converted a few Japanese to the status of true believers.

Thus I found myself on Thanksgiving Day in Tokyo.  What the fuck to do?  Well, with two kids who, no matter how well they are adjusting, are still fairly homesick for New York, it was time to make a Tokyo Thanksgiving dinner!  First problem, I don’t have an oven.  When you think about it, there are not a lot of roasts in Japanese cuisine and secondly, in a very energy-conscious and space conscious country, ovens are a decadent waste.  Okay!  I would maybe find some turkey parts and do, as my sister suggested, a turkey rolltini or something like that.  Nope.  Apparently turkey do not exist in Japan, or at least, they do not exist in my neighborhood.  So, a chicken?  Make a nice, roasted chicken! I looked all over for a whole bird and such a thing didn’t exist in the supermarkets around my house. Finally, in our local butcher shop I found a tiny, barely bigger than my hand, exquisitely raised and very expensive whole chicken.  Just one.  I bought it.  What else to make?  I had to make squash soup, it is a tradition in my family handed down from my aunt — the almost saintly Beulah Freeman ne’ Katz. She was the first to serve it using butternut squash, a touch of cumin and serving it with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.  She dutifully typed out the recipe for me, sealed it in an envelope and sent it to me while I was in college in Chicago.  My son assured me that stuffing was also necessary despite my many mis-steps. Some veggies, mashed potatoes, I was going to manage!

Beyond the turkey, there are also some Thanksgiving ingredients that don’t exist here: butternut squash, cranberries, sage, real sausage, bread stuffing, sour cream and apparently chicken broth.  It was time to improvise.  Kobocha squash seemed an easy replacement for butternut, bullion cubes for broth, Bulgarian yogurt for sour cream, toasted white bread for stuffing, ground pork for sausage and really there was nothing to do about the sage…Thyme alone would have to suffice!

My first problem was cooking a whole chicken, no matter how small it was, without an oven. I decided to season it inside and out, stuff it with a lemon and some rosemary, brown it all over and braise it over some celery, onion, sake and some broth.  I got my potatoes ready.  I made my soup.  I improvised a stove-top stuffing with white bread, ground pork, mushrooms, celery, onion, scallion and herbs.  I carmelized onions with grated zucchini.  I hit the leftover braising liquid and aromatics with the immersion blender to make a rich, peppery gravy. My kitchen here is a postage stamp compared to my roomy Brooklyn digs and my style of cooking is a bit chaotic, so every surface was in use from the floor, to the veranda to an old stool.  But, it all came together.

I set my table — a traditional Japanese style table for seating on the ground — filled up bowls with soup, carved my little bird and poured wine and juice for me and my kids (sadly my wife had to work).  We toasted to our move, to our new life, to being thankful for things that have been easy and gave a subdued fuck you to the things that have been hard.  We agreed to simply lie and refer to the chicken as a turkey.  We tucked in and, in reality, the Thanksgiving flavors were all there — mashed potatoes buttery and decadent, the chi…uh…turkey moist and flavorful, the soup even better with kobocha (over the past couple years American Butternut squash have been totally flavorless) and the stuffing both delicious and terrible (as per usual).  My in-laws and nephew drifted in and out of our kitchen, loading up plates with just a touch of perplexed humor — in essence it was homey and familiar and even 1000s of miles away from the shores where the Pilgrims first got saved from starvation from some kind Indians, it was Thanksgivingy. This is the power of ritualized meals.  They hold within each dish, each preparation, each ingredient the ghosts and memories of all the Thanksgiving meals that preceded them; they hold the touch of the grandmother who made a little roux so the gravy wouldn’t be lumpy, the father, who every year bitched that he hated turkey and couldn’t we have Spaghetti Carbonara instead, but then relented with the first bite and proclaimed it the best turkey ever (for the 48th time), the smart friend who draped the turkey with cheesecloth so it held the basting liquid for longer, the mother who introduced a ricer to a potato for the first time ever.  With each bite and each familiar taste, our tiny Japanese table filled with the spirit of all those who had ever eaten a Thanksgiving meal with us.  Hard to be homesick at such a crowded table.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and in the spirit of my aunt Beulah who would have approved, I will share my squash soup recipe for all those out there who might be suffering from Thanksgiving withdrawal:

Peel a whole Kobocha squash and discard the seeds.  Peel 4 potatoes and one cored apple and cut in cubes.  Mince one onion, 2 stalks of celery and one carrot and saute in butter until soft.  Add the squash, potatoes and apple and cover with chicken broth.  Bring to boil then reduce heat so it is gently simmering.  When everything is tender, use an immersion blender until mixture is smooth.  If it feel too thick, add more broth.  Season to taste with nutmeg, cumin, coriander, salt, white and black pepper and a touch of cayenne.  Let rest for a couple of hours to let the spices blend. Reheat and check seasoning then finish with a pint of heavy cream.  Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt and a garnish of minced chives.

3 Replies to “Tokyo Thanksgiving”

  1. I loved it Jeremy! You are a great writer and master of the kitchen improv. I look forward to a book of these and I know a great writing partner to organize it. Much love to you and your adorable family braving a new world. xo Lynnie

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