I love Thanksgiving. Let me repeat that. I lovvvvve Thanksgiving.
Since most of my Christmases were spent with the Asian half of my family, Thanksgiving represented the precious one time a year when I could eat what most of the country gets – dare I say it – twice a year! Because seriously, when do Asian families ever eat whole stuffed turkeys, mashed potatoes, biscuits, pumpkin pie! at Christmas??? My family always had noodles and rice. That’s why I insist – absolutely insist! – that this precious holiday be celebrated, no matter where I am currently living. This does present somewhat of a problem though. Very few countries have the products that we Americans and Canadians need. That’s why I’ve compiled a few tips that might help you properly prepare for Thanksgiving no matter where on earth you are.
First of all, admit it: you’re not in America (or Canada) and they will most likely NOT have what you need. So, most importantly: plan ahead. On the bright side though, you’re not in America, so it doesn’t have to happen on a certain day. Last Thursday in November?? Pshhh…I have work the next day, so I usually plan it for Saturday.
So, what do you do for those precious and necessary ingredients not readily available, such as: gigantic whole turkeys, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie mix, graham crackers, sweet potatoes, even things like brown sugar?
- Check for any specialty American/British import shops in the vicinity. This is often a pricy alternative, but around this time they’ll most likely have the items that you need. Some may even sell already prepared items such as pies.
- Check for any ethnic markets in the vicinity. Seriously. I’ve had fantastic luck in the local Asian markets by stumbling upon necessary items such as brown sugar (from China, of all places). Also, certain produce items are diet staples for many peoples and African, Latin American, or Asian shops may carry things like sweet potatoes, yams, or pumpkins. I always buy yams around this time of year from a local Asian market because no other store carries them.
- Check out the import stores on any American army bases in the vicinity. Actually, I can’t say I’ve ever tried this, but I know for sure that they stock everything you’ll need around this time. I also know that supplies run out fast. What I don’t know is how much the items cost or if they’re available to non-army members. Worth a shot though!
- If you’re going home sometime before Thanksgiving, think ahead and buy non-perishable items like graham crackers (for cheesecake! And make s’mores if you have extra!). Alternatively, you could have a family member or friend ship you what you need. Just know that this can be very expensive, depending on how heavy the items are. Plus, it might take a few weeks to arrive, depending on your location.
- Buy online. Plain and simple. There’s tons of stuff online. However, I’m guilty of not taking advantage of the internet, probably because I’m a little lazy and for the following reason:
- Use local produce and resources. I have to admit though, this method does take more work and some deal of searching. Last year I was able to find whole pumpkins, but no pumpkin pie mix in German stores. So I made a totally homemade pumpkin pie the night before. I also found whole, fresh cranberries at Migros, but no cranberry sauce. So I made homemade cranberry sauce two nights before. Check all of the supermarkets at different times, you never know what’s in stock. For more “exotic” items (like cranberries), check higher-end or specialty supermarkets. Check local farmer’s markets as they usually feature seasonal vegetables (aka squash, potatoes, pumpkins, corn, etc.). And, depending on which country you’re in, farmer’s markets might be the same price or even cheaper than supermarkets. It’s a bit more work and planning making everything from scratch, but if you can pull it off, it’s worth the delicious-ness.
- The turkey. It seems no other country believes in eating whole turkeys, so they might be a bit difficult to find. Check your supermarkets’ and specialty stores’ freezers just in case, though. However, most European countries have small, local butchers. Ask in advance if they carry whole turkeys. They can often comply with your wishes, if you order a few weeks in advance. The same is true for butchers in higher-end grocery stores. Last year I was able to order whole turkeys from Migros two weeks in advance. Just be aware that the turkeys may not be as big as whopping American 20-pounders. If you’re hosting a big Thanksgiving celebration, you may have to buy two smaller turkeys instead of one bigger one – probably a better thing as ovens in other countries are usually smaller. If you live in a more agricultural community, ask local farmers if they have turkeys for sale. Wherever you’re buying from though, it’s always a good idea to ask how much of the organs they’ll remove, if part of the neck is still on, etc. Most places I’ve encountered clean everything up, but you never know. If finding a whole bird is simply impossible, just use turkey breast fillets. Quicker, easier, and more predictable.
- Substitute, substitute, substitute. If you can’t find a turkey, use a goose! Last year I saw whole frozen geese at Aldi, a discount supermarket in Germany. If you can’t find geese, look for pheasant! Or duck! Or any festive bird, really. If you can’t find brown sugar, use white sugar mixed with a little molasses (that’s all brown sugar is, after all). Or use plain white sugar. If you can’t find graham crackers, use another sweet, crunchy cookie. If you can’t find any ingredients for green bean casserole, make another vegetable dish! If you can’t find vanilla extract, well, you may have to use vanilla aroma instead, or resort to making your own (plan a couple months in advance for that).
In addition to tracking down these hard to find ingredients, here are some general tips and suggestions:
- Anticipate any difficulties. Do shops close earlier than in the U.S.? Are they open on Sundays? If they aren’t and you’re hosting your get-together at these times, make sure you have all your ingredients together. Last-minute store runs may not be an option.
- Consider your venue. Is your kitchen big enough to cook for everyone? If you simply don’t have enough oven space, you could prepare a dish ahead of time and re-heat it when the turkey is resting. Is your house big enough to serve everyone? If not, find a good friend with larger accommodations and thank them profusely. Do you have enough plates/silverware? If you don’t, buy paper plates or ask others to bring more plates along. Do you have a dishwasher? That can make all the difference.
- Decide on how to get everything made. Do you feel like cooking everything on your own? If you don’t, delegate tasks to others who are willing to help out. You could also do all the prep work for a dish and ask a friend to simply stick it in their oven and bring it to your house later. This is especially good if you don’t have enough oven space and you’re asking someone who’s unfamiliar with making Thanksgiving food. If you want to have a huge get-together yet are lacking friends to delegate tasks to, don’t despair. It can be done. Last year my friend and I were able to pull off cooking a whole Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people in one small kitchen. The secret is planning ahead. Make things like cranberry sauce a few days ahead of time. Make pies and desserts the night before. Wash and prep any veggies a day ahead. These few extra steps will keep you from going crazy on your Thanksgiving day.
- If you’re hosting a large event, make a plan. Write out the dishes you’re making and when. e.g. Wednesday: Cranberry sauce, honey butter. Thursday: Pies, cheesecake, veggie prep, brine turkey. Friday: Cook turkey and eat. A little obsessive-compulsive/nerdy? Yes. Super helpful when cooking a giant Thanksgiving feast on your own? Definitely.
- Most importantly, consider your guests. Of course, Americans and Canadians will jump at the chance to take part in this special day. But make sure to invite people from other backgrounds too. In my experience, it’s always had a positive outcome. One Brit even remarked during the course of the meal, “Now I know why you Americans do this! It’s fantastic!” It’s also always a nice gesture to ask guests in advance if they have any dietary restrictions. Are they vegetarian? Lactose intolerant? Allergic to certain items? With a little understanding and preparation on both sides, you can pull off a Thanksgiving that everyone can enjoy. Just tell them to bring necessary meds just in case…. Did I mention that among the 30 guests we cooked for last year, there was one guest allergic to wheat, a few lactose intolerant folks, and some vegetarians? It just goes to show, it can be done!
- Lastly, enjoy the dinner. Thanksgiving is about enjoying and giving thanks for the people and things we have in our lives. If something does go wrong (and there’s usually always something), just remember that it’s ok. This day commemorates surviving difficult times while maintaining a positive, thankful attitude, after all. And what better way to do that than pulling off cooking a ridiculously gigantic American meal from scratch – in a foreign country, no less?