Turkey's in China? Celebrating American Thanksgiving in China

a roasted bird for thanksgiving
••• Behold the final product, a beautiful roasted duck, Beijing style. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

Introduction

Thanksgiving is by definition a North American holiday. Canadians do Thanksgiving in October, Americans in November. How about in China? Is there a Chinese Thanksgiving?

Now, why would Chinese celebrate Thanksgiving? It's one of the few Western holidays that hasn't made it's way over the Pacific. Stores and hotels deck themselves out for Christmas and Valentine's chocolate goes on sale in early February.

But Thanksgiving? No. There's not a lot of local enthusiasm around cranberries and turkey.

So You're Going to Be in China over Thanksgiving

Anyway, it's the fourth Thursday in November and you've found yourself in China somewhere. If you're in Beijing or Shanghai or other very large cities, you might be able to find the right ingredients to pull off the makings of a proper Thanksgiving dinner yourself.

(If you're Canadian, you're going to have to do-it-yourself without any help aside from perhaps your embassy/consulate and the foreign grocery stores. Sadly, America rules when it comes to Thanksgiving so our North American neighbors get ignored in China when it comes to this holiday.)

Self-Catering Thanksgiving

But back to the fourth Thursday of November, you're in luck. If you really need to get your turkey fix, most large international hotels put on a Thanksgiving feast, buffet style. These establishments also cook up turkeys and ham to order so if you want to celebrate at home, order a turkey in advance you can pick it up on the day to bring home and carve up for the family.

(Make sure you tell them you want it cooked though. Friends suffered a frozen bird delivered at 5pm for their feast last year!)

If you are a glutton for punishment and want to do it all yourself, you can indeed. Just head to your local international grocery store (Jenny Lu's in Beijing, Cityshop in Shanghai) and stock up on all the fixings: frozen Butterball turkeys, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie makings.

But you better do it fast, there tends to be a run on these items so if you're shopping on Thanksgiving morning, you'll be out of luck.

Thanksgiving China Style – Roast Duck

If you find yourself outside of the larger cities on Thanksgiving, so can't organize a turkey, there are other options for roast birds. Why not tuck into a Beijing-style roast duck?

Here's the story of my usual Thanksgiving dinners in Shanghai:

There was a bird on the table and it was roasted. But all I did was make a booking. There was no mess, no washing up to do, no days of leftovers to store and eat. This is just how I like it. Thanksgiving – China Style.

I booked a table at Xindalu, the Chinese restaurant in the Hyatt on the Bund. It’s well known for its roast duck (Peking Duck as we know it abroad) and I’d always wanted to try it there but hadn't had the occasion.

Eating roast duck is such fun. First, the water rolls out the beautiful glossy golden-brown duck. He carves it up and first serves the crispy outer skin. Depending on where you go – this can be delicious or disgusting. The first time I visited in China in 1998 I was in Beijing alone and decided I needed to try its most famous dish. I got served the duck skin with about an inch of white fat underneath and couldn’t go any further with my duck adventure.

Luckily, I’ve learned that all ducks are not the same and the tastiest (to my American fat-despising palate) are the ducks with just a thin layer of fat under the skin.

As I was saying, first on your table is a dish of crispy skin. Very thin, rice pancakes will then arrive served in a bamboo steamer along with condiments such as plum sauce, sugar, julienned leeks and cucumbers. You make little burritos from your pancake, sauce and skin and munch them up. There’s such a beautiful mixture of flavors from the sweet plum sauce, the fresh vegetables and then the crispy slightly salty smoky duck. In my mind, there isn’t anything better on the Chinese table.

After you’ve munched on your self-made burritos for a while, the chef will carve the breast and you’ll have delicious lean duck meat to savor with whatever other dishes you’ve ordered.

While ordering a whole duck sounds like a lot, ducks are nothing like their big fat American cousin turkeys that have been grown so large they can feed several families for weeks. No, one duck can serve about four people who love duck, six who only want a taste.

Eating Beijing duck is my Thanksgiving suggestion. Go with friends, colleagues or even alone and make sure you've got a roast bird of some sort on the table.