AS Thanksgiving Day approaches, many families in the U.S. have begun pulling out family recipes for apple pie, reserving holiday turkeys, and stocking up on staples like potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce for their upcoming family dinner.
While the holiday isn’t really celebrated in the Philippines, Thanksgiving is something Filipino-American families have mastered and embraced since arriving in the U.S.
Pop culture has even picked up on it. In the CW show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, a whole episode is dedicated to a Fil-Am Thanksgiving dinner where the main character Rachel, prepares to attend a Thanksgiving dinner in West Covina, California with her ex-boyfriend’s Fil-Am family in an attempt to win their hearts.
Upon imagining what it would be like to be “surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred Filipinos”, the scene cuts to an iPhone with a Tagalog learning app running, a laptop in the background opened to a page titled “Cooking Filipino Food” with a recipe for dinuguan, and ingredients including a bottle of Datu Puti vinegar next to it.
When asked about the smell, Rachel enthusiastically explains that it’s pork cooked in pork blood before offering her unwilling friend to try some.
Cut again to the episode’s mannequin challenge scene, Rachel strides into the Thanksgiving party with the dinuguan, passes the many family members, and confidently places it on the table near the turkey being carved by her ex’s father.
While dinuguan may not be a common must-have dish even for Fil-Am families, the episode was spot on in highlighting the role Filipino food plays in a unique Thanksgiving dinner.
For Fil-Ams, traditional holiday side dishes go beyond the mashed potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, cornbread, and butternut squash.
On the table, one would usually find pancit, chicken adobo, kaldereta, pinakbet, fried tilapia, lumpia, and queso de bola, among others.
In addition to (or sometimes in place of) the holiday turkey, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find a roasted duck or lechon (whole roasted pig) as a centerpiece.
For Chef Barb Batiste, the special dish at her family Thanksgiving dinners was rellenong manok (stuffed chicken), an elaborate and labor-intensive dish often made during the holidays.
Batiste is the owner and founder of B Sweet in Los Angeles, a famous dessert shop known especially for their decadent bread puddings. She’s also the owner of the soon-to-open Filipino restaurant Big Boi which will be just a couple doors down from its sweet counterpart.
“I remember my aunt deboning the chicken and stuffing it with a stuffing made from ground pork, garlic, onions, and carrots — little bits and pieces of it — and she would debone the whole entire chicken and then re-stuff it with this ground meat, and then she would bake it,” Batiste told the Asian Journal reminiscently.
“It was so labor intensive. It took so much time, but it was just such a special thing,” she added.
Much like the traditional holiday turkey, rellenong manok involves being stuffed with a hodgepodge of ingredients that can differ based on family recipes, before being brushed or marinated, and roasted in the oven.
The difference is that the chicken in rellenong manok is deboned, meaning you could slice it down the center rather smoothly.
“I can’t even describe the flavor. It was so good. The stuffing inside — it was so amazing,” said Batiste. “And then my mom and aunt would make this sauce you would put on top of it from the drippings. I’ve been contemplating and dreaming about it,” she added.
Batiste said she’s going to try to make it, but added she’s not sure if it will meet her mom’s expectations.
As for dessert, many Fil-Ams look forward to sweets like sapin-sapin, maja blanca, halayang ube, leche flan, or turon in addition to the traditional assortment of pumpkin, apple, or pecan pies.
Batiste recalls her mom’s bibingka that would vary in topping — grated coconut, shaved coconut, coconut milk browned on the broiler — or in base by using kamoteng kahoy (cassava) instead of rice.
And of course, there was puto.
“She’d make fun ones — she’d make ube puto or a mango puto,” said Batiste. “There was always something special to it.”
Despite being a famed pastry chef, Batiste still looks up to her mom, who at 80 years old, still remembers her recipes.
“It’s cool I can still refer to her for recipes,” said Batiste.
Batiste’s most requested dish by family and friends? Her candied yams — a classic American Thanksgiving dish.
“It’s kind of like the recipe my mom, my aunt, and I try to make better each year. It’s kind of a favorite in my household,” said Batiste, adding that they’ve tried almost every possible way to execute it.
“I happen to think it’s pretty yummy,” she added.
At B Sweet Dessert Bar, a favorite among customers has unsurprisingly been their pumpkin bread pudding — their famous bread puddings come in over 40 flavors, rotating weekly. Their “halos”, which are ice cream stuffed donuts, have also been a hit. To welcome the season, pumpkin ice cream has been added to the flavors. And then there’s their sweet potato pie and their pumpkin mini loaves.
But like for most families regardless of background, it’s not the food on the table that matters the most, but the family gathered around it. Thanksgiving is a time for families to get together and express gratitude for one another.
For Batiste who lost her dad six years ago in December, the holidays are especially important to her.
“It was probably one of my dad’s favorite holidays because he was always the one who carved the turkey,” shared Batiste, adding that she would always remember her dad forecasting a warm and sunny Thanksgiving Day.
Batiste credits much of her success to her dad who told her to do what she loved, and do great things for people — a chair dedicated to him sits at her dessert bar.
“I’m grateful to him for what he’s left me,” she said. “I have that still and I have to remember it in my head and in my heart. Family first.”