Heavily touted as a holiday that brings people together, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to welcome new flavors into the fold as well. Traditional dishes needn’t be banished from the banquet this fall, but even the old standbys can be given new life with unexpected seasonings.
Of course, many American Thanksgiving tables already include regional and international dishes and influences. We are a melting pot, after all, and generations of immigrants from all over the world have incorporated their own foods and flavors into the canonical holiday spread. You might find a dish of sauerkraut beside the sweet potato casserole, a pot of menudo and a platter of tamales next to the gravy boat, a bowl of daal nestled up to a biryani-stuffed turkey, a Chinese-style steamed turkey as centerpiece, or even a soy-roasted duck in place of the bigger bird.
Whether your meal already includes multicultural dishes but you’re always hungry for more delicious new twists on familiar favorites, or your family feast is way more traditional and you’re ready for a change, it’s easy to bring all kinds of global flavors to your groaning board. You can search out specialties from various countries and simply add them to the mix, or you can tweak the tried-and-true, from the bird and all its classic sides, on through the dessert course, to have more interesting flavors than what you may be used to. Here are some basic ideas to give you a little inspiration:
Turkey and Gravy
Changing up the star of the show is a cinch; just switch out the rosemary, sage, and other fall herbs for spice blends like berbere, za’atar, Indian curry powder, or Chinese five spice, or slather the bird with harissa, mole, or Thai curry paste (in which case, stuff the cavity with ginger and lemongrass too), and cook it as you normally would. Use the drippings to make a matching gravy, and if you’ll need extra (because honestly, there’s no such thing as too much gravy), make a batch ahead of time. Using a judicious hand, sub in the spices you’ll use on the whole bird instead of the thyme in the recipe, and if the white wine will clash, substitute more turkey stock instead. Of course, if it makes more sense for your chosen flavors (and if your family will tolerate it), ladle mole, spiced yogurt, or a coconut milk curry sauce over your turkey instead of gravy. And if your meal is meatless, you can do the same basic spice swapping with your homemade tofurkey or protein of choice.
This, too, can simply be seasoned with different spice blends for an easy fresh take, but you can also play around with the base ingredients. Replace bread cubes with rice (whether sticky, long grain, wild, etc.), or quinoa, couscous, and other grains, and mix in nuts and dried fruits for texture instead of plain old celery and apples. Look to the dim sum classic sticky rice with Chinese sausage, Persian jeweled rice, and Moroccan tagines for inspiration. Try rice and beans with a Cuban-spiced bird. Or take a cue from tamales and make a masa stuffing for a mole turkey.
Bread and Rolls
While creamy whipped potatoes and gravy are a surefire crowd pleaser, there are lots of other vegetables that make equally great mashes or purées, and that can be adapted to countless tastes. Butternut squash puréed with Middle Eastern spices and a little pomegranate molasses is a fabulous option to consider, as are Mexican-spiced mashed sweet potatoes (cumin, chipotle, lime), or miso-sesame turnip mash, or garlicky mashed yuca…
Other Vegetable Side Dishes
These can be borrowed wholesale from various cuisines—tempura squash, caponata, fried plantains—or you can just toss your usual roasted brussels sprouts, carrots, and other root veggies in a blend of spices that’s a bit more exciting than simple salt and pepper. Add soy, miso, or tahini too for another depth of flavor, as long it harmonizes with your chosen seasonings. Not all cuisines complement each other, but many flavor profiles overlap or can be successfully mixed and matched. Try Korean seasonings on your spinach or braised greens. If you’re a fan of green bean casserole, think about making it with coconut milk (which is also good for vegan guests) and perhaps curry-dusted panko bread crumbs on top instead of or in addition to the onions.
Although you can’t forget the perfectly piquant fruit in some form (whether you like it chunky or jellied), you can make it a little more exciting with different seasonings—five spice is nice, or add a little chipotle for a smoky kick—or change the format up entirely and make a cranberry salsa instead. Add other fruits like mango or figs to make more of a chutney. Or get a little tricky and make vinegret, a ruby-red Russian salad of beets, potatoes, and pickles, which not only looks similar to cranberry relish, but fulfills the same sweet-tart role at the table. (But maybe also keep a can of the classic stuff on hand in case of revolt.)
To cap off the big meal, die-hard traditionalists simply cannot do without a pumpkin pie, and some of them will accept no modifications (like, not even a relatively conventional eggnog pumpkin pie, let alone one with walnut streusel and Sichuan peppercorn). But for more flexible families, you might try a pumpkin flan instead, or an ube pie (call it purple yam or sweet potato if that helps win hearts and minds). If you’re apple pie people, our Spiked Apple Galette recipe makes a fine French alternative.
Above all, don’t be afraid to get creative in the kitchen this Thanksgiving, and play around with palates from various parts of the globe. But if you’d like some firmer guidelines, check out these multicultural, holiday-appropriate recipes to get you started.
This gorgeously burnished bird could be called Latin American, Mexican, or Southwestern, but it is most definitely delicious thanks to dried pasilla, ancho, and chipotle chiles, garlic, spices, vinegar, and citrus. Mashed sweet potatoes would play particularly well off the vibrant, complex flavors of the adobo butter. Get the recipe.
Indian spices like coriander, garam masala, fenugreek, and cardamom in the brine, the marinade, and the stuffing make this richly flavored turkey taste as stunning as it looks. The yogurt-based marinade, similar to that used in tandoori chicken, turns out to be a fine Thanksgiving trick (also used to great effect in this Turkish-spiced turkey). The Cognac and heavy cream enriched gravy may not be Indian, but it sure is tasty, and fitting for the decadent bird. Get the recipe.
There are numerous options for Asian-flavored turkeys in general, like Chinese five spice, a Peking-style lacquer, or a soy-miso glaze, but this relatively simple bird boasts an aromatic Thai seasoning paste of garlic, cilantro, white peppercorns, palm sugar, and oyster sauce rubbed under the skin. Soy butter is brushed on top for a golden-brown glaze. Consider a sticky rice stuffing (though it’s safest to make it outside of the bird itself). Get the recipe.
Miso adds a salty umami depth to anything it touches (for instance, this miso caramel apple pie). Here, it’s mixed with togarashi and butter for a spicy, rich medium in which to roast radishes. It’s definitely worth trying radishes this way, but the seasoning and cooking method will also work just as well for pretty much any root vegetable, and will be just uncommon enough to pique interest while still marrying beautifully with more traditional Thanksgiving flavors. Get our Pan Seared Radishes with Miso Butter recipe.
Tamales are generally soft, steamy, and fragrant, just like bread stuffing, so why not make one giant tamale to go with your Thanksgiving spread, particularly if you go with a Mexican or South American flavor for the bird? The soft masa, poblano peppers, chorizo, and mushrooms are steamed in banana leaves to imbue extra earthiness. Get the recipe.
Chewy, nutty pearls of toasted Israeli couscous make another great stuffing alternative, especially if you make a Moroccan or Turkish turkey. The dates and almonds lend additional flavor and texture, and the cinnamon is perfect for fall. If you need a gluten-free option, the same flavors would be a natural fit for quinoa too. Get our Toasted Israeli Couscous Pilaf with Dates, Almonds, Cinnamon, and Parsley recipe.
It may sound strange at first glance, but peanut butter adds a great depth and extra creaminess to mashed butternut squash, in the same way sesame paste works in tahini whipped sweet potatoes—and both are vegan. You’ll find a couple more squash recipes from Zimbabwe at the link, but scroll down the page for the nhopi. Get the recipe.
Plenty of pumpkin is the autumnal order of the season, and here it’s roasted with cinnamon and black pepper, then garnished with honey-tahini yogurt and dukkah, the Egyptian hazelnut, sesame seed, and spice blend. If you’re sick of squash by now, try making this with carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, or brussels sprouts instead. Get the recipe.
Ube is the Filipino ingredient du jour, and it makes a spectacular showing with its rich purple hue. Although the color is uncommonly lovely, this dessert will taste familiar to anyone used to pumpkin and sweet potato pies. For a more traditional Filipino recipe, this Filipino egg pie is simple, custardy, and sweet, but if you want the warm spices of fall with a few new bells and whistles, this purple pie is perfect. Get the recipe.
Indian chai spices (cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper) work beautifully with lots of fall ingredients; add chai masala to your pumpkin pie for a subtly different spice, bake a chai spice apple pie, or make this whimsical yet elegant poached pear dessert. The tender fruit helps the spicy cake stay moist, and a dusting of powdered sugar adds just enough extra sweetness, but some caramel drizzled on top of each slice, or even some caramel ice cream, certainly wouldn’t be amiss. Get the recipe.
Greeks are often associated with baklava, but many countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire lay claim to the dessert. This version is solidly North American with its gooey maple syrup in place of honey, and pecans instead of pistachios or walnuts. The sweet, crunchy little bites evoke classic pecan pie with an extra-flaky, crispy crust. Get the recipe.
For more Thanksgiving tips, hacks, and recipes, check out our Ultimate Thanksgiving Guide.
Header image courtesy of Mayra Beltran for The Houston Chronicle.