Newcomers add flavors to Thanksgiving meals

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Thanksgiving in Morshed Alam’s house comes with all the trimmings and then some. Family and friends gather at his table every November to feast on a south Asian riff on a distinctly American tradition: curried turkey.

“We cook it in our way,” said Alam, who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1984 and is president of the New Americans Committee of the Queens Democratic Party. “We put a lot of spices on it. “We as Indians eat spices so even in the turkey we put spices.”

Like Alam, recently arrived immigrants across Queens plan to celebrate Thanksgiving Thursday evening by blending American traditions with customs from their homelands. In interviews this week, the borough’s new immigrants said everything from the food they will eat to the meaning of the holiday will be a mixture of old and new.

For Harpreet Singh Toor, trustee of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Thanksgiving is a special day.

“It is the one holiday which I appreciate over every other holiday,” said the Sikh community leader, who arrived from the Punjab region of India in 1984. “Thanksgiving is a time when we come together as family.”

He noted that turkey will be on the menu at his house. “I’m talking real stuffed turkey,” he said with a smile. “But we prepare our Indian dishes as well. We have mattar paneer, [which is] a rice dish with green peas and cheese, tandoori chicken, lentils and, of course, roti.”

When asked how he planned to celebrate Thanksgiving, Rajpal Singh, a Sikh who arrived in the United States six months ago, said he had never heard of the holiday. He said he was eager to search the Internet to find out as much as he could about its history.

Several days later, Singh said he had read all about Thanksgiving and had organized a small group of friends from his temple to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan.

Fred Fu, president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, who came to the United States from China in 1980, said he enjoys Thanksgiving because it has similarities to new year celebrations and the Moon Festival in his own culture.

“People come together,” he said. “It means harmony.”

Nahum Kaziev, president of the Educational Center for Russian Jewry in Rego Park, said many Bukharian Jews will celebrate the holiday by preparing kosher turkeys.

“It symbolizes something close to them,” he said about Thanksgiving. “It says it in the name. It’s symbolizing them coming here, coming to a free country, establishing themselves and becoming Americans.”

Yaffa Haimoff is one of the borough residents who will celebrate by cooking a kosher turkey. The Kew Gardens social worker came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 1993.

“For us this is new and it makes us feel like we’re part of America,” she said. “We celebrate this, not as Jews, but to be part of American culture.”

This year the Thanksgiving holiday falls during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan for the first time in recent memory. Even though Muslims fast from dawn to dusk throughout the month, it does not stop them from celebrating Thanksgiving, according to Ali Mirza, president of the Flushing-based Americans of Pakistani Heritage.

Mirza, who came to the United States in 1984, said he spends Thanksgiving with friends and family and even sends cards to relatives that remain in Pakistan so they can learn about the holiday.

This year he said the celebration will have to wait for nightfall, but once the sun sets, those who gather at his house will feast on halaal turkey, the traditional Pakistani dish biryani and a sweet rice pudding-like dish called kheer.

At the Elohim Christian Church in Richmond Hill, Tony Miranda planned a turkey dinner for the church’s predominantly Dominican population. But he said there would be a Dominican touch to the meal.

“We’ll serve arroz con condules, which is rice with pigeon peas,” he said. “It’s very traditional for us.”

Alam, who planned to serve the spice-laden turkey, said Thanksgiving was about more than food for the borough’s immigrants.

“We remember our lives, how we came to America, where we came from and where we are now,” he said. “One of the reasons we are thankful is for the opportunities we’ve been given here.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Updated 7:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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