A Singaporean Thanksgiving

Right up till last Thursday, Thanksgiving was an alien concept to me, despite having been in the US for all of two years. It wasn’t the first time we spectated on the manic preparations leading up to one of the biggest American holidays of the year, but it was certainly the first time we commemorated it and truly enjoyed ourselves while doing so.

Having had our fair share of innocently curious questions like, “You don’t know why we celebrate Thanksgiving???” and “So what do you do for Thanksgiving back home?”, I found it highly amusing, and culturally intriguing how easy it is for anyone to assume that our unique cultural practices are a universal affair. These questions led me to take two steps back and to understand this holiday for what it really was: Giving Thanks.

This premise of celebrating the gifts in one’s life, no matter how rich, poor, unemployed or handicapped, is a pretty attractive idea. On the surface, I, with my own set of cultural blinders, likened this dinner to the Reunion Dinner that the Chinese have on the eve of every Lunar New Year, gathering round a table with family and/or friends to feast on dishes that symbolize health, prosperity and good fortune. While feasting is common to both events, each has a unique perspective. The Reunion Dinner is forward-looking, anticipating the fortune and good luck that the next year will bring. The Thanksgiving dinner in contrast, offers a moment for pause and reflection on the year past and to be grateful. Both, in my opinion, excellent tools to help maintain a balanced perspective on where we are in our lives.

It was with this insight that we headed over to P‘s place for a potluck spread of delectable dishes with fellow Singaporeans (and two “Singaporeans-by-association”).

The theme was “Mom’s Best Dish”, yielding a collection of some of the best and spiciest dishes that really hit the spot; there were Chili Crabs, Braised Squid in a Sambal Sauce, Fried Anchovies with Peanuts and Chili Paste (pictured above), Oxtail Stew (ok, so this is not exactly Singaporean, but a jolly good potluck staple), followed by a trio of desserts: an experimental Pumpkin and Milo mousse, a sweet Chinese soup of White Fungus, Dried Longans and Goji Berries and my mother-in-law’s Streusel. I prepared my mother’s Chicken Rice recipe (which I’ve updated below), paired with some home-made chili sauce that I picked up on my last trip home.

Sitting at the table with six other individuals that we barely knew a year ago, I was struck by how much has changed in the time we’ve been here. It was exactly two years ago that I “officially” moved, leaving behind a whole network of friends and family to start all over again in this foreign country. I felt daunted by the prospect of having to “get out there” to make new friends, having been relieved of this awkwardness from growing up in a tiny city where every other friend knows another friend of yours. It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve been fortunate to meet a host of lovely people, making the experience far more rewarding than I could have anticipated. And for that, we are thankful.

My Mother’s Chicken Rice
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as part of a big feast. This is usually enjoyed with a side of home-made chili paste, or dark soya sauce or a ginger paste made from pounded ginger, sesame oil and a pinch of salt. I have yet to try recreating my mother’s chili sauce recipe, but I’ll post about it when I do!

Boiling the chicken:
1 whole pasture-raised chicken, weighing approximately 3 to 4 pounds (1½ to 2 kilograms), trimmed of excess fat
Fine sea salt
A 4 inch/ 10 cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch chunks
9 cups/ 2 liters water

Clean and wash the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Salt the chicken, inside and out and place it in the biggest pot you can find. Add the ginger and fill the pot with enough water to submerge the bird.

Bring the water to a boil then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer for at least 2 hours. Check if the chicken is ready by cutting into the thigh joints, which take the longest time to cook. If they’re still raw, leave the bird to cook for a while longer.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and set it aside to cool before deboning it. Reserve the stock for the rice and sauce.

For the rice:
20 ounces/ 570 grams white Jasmine rice (about 4 rice cooker cups)
A 4 inch/ 10 cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch chunks
2 shallots or 6 red pearl onions, thinly sliced
6 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 pandan leaves, knotted

2¾ cups/ 650 ml chicken stock

Wash the rice by covering it in tap water and swirling the grains until the liquid turns cloudy. Drain and repeat at least two more times until the water runs clear. Set aside. (I always wash white rice before cooking it to remove the excess starch. Check out the British-born Chinese blog and Wisegeek for the whys and hows of washing rice).

Heat the oil over high heat in a wok or frying pan deep enough to contain the rice and its condiments. Stir-fry the garlic, ginger and shallots/onions until golden, then add the grains and mix well to coat the rice with oil. Turn the heat to medium, stirring the rice constantly to ‘toast’ it until the mixture starts to turn a very light shade of brown. Turn off the fire and transfer the mixture to the pot of a rice-cooker. Add the pandan leaves and water, stirring to mix and set to cook.

To serve:
5 tablespoons chicken stock
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons light soya sauce
3 green onions
A handful of cilantro stalks

Mix the chicken stock, sesame oil and soya sauce in a small bowl and set aside. Roughly chop the green onions and cilantro and soak them in a bowl of cold water until ready to use.

Debone the chicken and arrange the pieces on a serving platter, then pour the stock/soya sauce mixture over the meat. Garnish with the green onions and cilantro and serve with rice.

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10 Comments

  1. El

    I’m glad you enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner. I can almost guarantee you felt better after eating the Singaporean spread than most people did after eating the traditional meal. Congratulations on 2 years in the US…may you have many more to come!

  2. Felicia: I’m game for this anytime, not just Thanksgiving – come up and visit!

    OysterCulture: Do it! A popiah party would be perfect actually, where everyone makes their own spring rolls…and healthy too!

    El: LOL! We were stuffed, but pleasantly so 😉 No chili-crab inducing coma there.

    Thanks all for your comments!

  3. rabbittrick

    Great post!

    I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (and my most immediate circles don’t seem to partake in this particular holiday either) but it’s great that no matter what race, religion or nationality we all give thanks the very best way we know how – by celebrating with friends and with great grub. =)

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