After my family fled Vietnam in 1975 and settled in California, we took in American holidays with gusto. My sisters and I studied recipes in cookbooks, magazines, and newspapers, trying to understand our new situation. My frugal mother clipped coupons and roasted free turkeys for years. One Thanksgiving, she admitted that she wasn’t fond of its dryish meat. Uh-oh, we were trying to fit in as best we could, despite the fish sauce vapors in our kitchen and my dad harvesting fresh banana leaves from the front yard with a machete.
To have Thanksgiving without turkey seemed un-American at the time. But mom had had enough. She instead roasted big chickens stuffed with sticky rice seasoned by cognac, shiitake mushroom, thyme and butter (see the recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, the rice chapter). Roasted chestnuts with butter and cilantro was her go-to side.
We all gave her Viet-Franco-American approach the thumbs up, and thereafter, more Viet foods began appearing on our Thanksgiving menus. For example, charcuterie, salads and soups flavored with fish sauce preceded the main course. Tiny wedges of homemade moon cake, prepared for the Mid-Autumn Festival (an Asian harvest celebration), were part of the closing parade of sweets.
When my siblings and I got married in the 1990s, we switched to having traditional Thanksgiving meals with our own families or in-laws. The day after, we gather at my parent’s home in San Clemente for a Vietnamese feast. My mother sets out old school favorites as well as modern dishes created here. We gobble it all up in gratitude for life’s many blessings.
This cabbage, fennel and cashew salad echoes the new traditions that we’ve carved out for ourselves. A rendition of the recipe was included in Sunset magazine’s November 2012 issue as part of a collection of fusion Thanksgiving foods. Online at the magazine’s site, my Vietnamese-American salad recipe is part of a post on 20 cultural fusion dishes. Sunset's recipes are full of inventive ideas so check them out.
(Of course, you don't have to save this salad just for the holidays. It's easy and tasty, great with a sandwich or bowl of soup.)
Most of us have developed non-traditional Thanksgiving traditions. What’s your culinary mash-up?
Vietnamese-American Thanksgiving Salad
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
- 1 or 2 Thai, Fresno or serrano chiles, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 5 tablespoons unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
- 1 carrot, cut into julienne or matchsticks
- 1 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced (1 cup / 115 g total)
- 2 1/2 cups packed / 200 g shredded red cabbage
- 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint and/or basil (Thai or Italian) leaves
- 2/3 cup toasted cashew halves and pieces
- Use a mortar and pestle to mash the chile, garlic, ½ teaspoon sugar, and salt into an orange-red paste. Scrape it into a bowl and add the remaining teaspoon of sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Taste and tweak to create a spicy, tart, savory, lightly garlicky dressing.
- In a large bowl, combine the carrot, fennel, cabbage, herb, and cashew. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well, either with tongs or better yet, with your hand in a gentle massaging motion. The vegetables will soften slightly but remain a little crunchy. Taste and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing the sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. Transfer to a serving plate, leaving any unabsorbed dressing behind, and serve.