All happy families may be alike, or so Tolstoy tells us, but every happy family’s Thanksgiving dinner is a little different. Sure, there’s probably more overlap of certain ingredients consumed in American households than on any other day of the year, but anyone who looks forward to the holiday as much as I do will tell you the particular idiosyncrasies of their annual meal: a grandmother’s secret pie recipe, a dad’s experimentation with the deep fryer, a shared dislike of yams.
In my family, the turkey is dry brined (a technique my mom has used since before she knew the name for it), there’s always salmon on the table (my grandpa doesn’t like turkey and my sister is a pescatarian) and the pumpkin pie is actually made with butternut squash. But the dish that my siblings and I look forward to the most, hands down, is the stuffing—which, in our house, means gooey, savory sticky rice studded with chestnuts, Chinese sausage and mushrooms. (We love it so much that it makes a recurring appearance as breakfast on Christmas morning.)
At some point during my childhood I became aware that rice stuffing wasn’t a “traditional” Thanksgiving food (though then again, neither was turkey). For a few years I insisted we make both kinds—Chinese and American—because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And while I can definitely get down with some buttery, herby crumbles of bread and sausage (I mean, what’s not to like?), it’s the Chinese rice stuffing that I dream about.
I’ve lived 3,000 miles away from my hometown for the past decade and haven’t been home for Thanksgiving most of those years, though my parents are a constant presence on text and FaceTime throughout the day, whether it’s to offer recipe advice or taunt me for the 60-degree California weather I’m missing. Sometimes I’ll tag along to a Friendsgiving, but most years I prefer to have dinner at home, even if it’s just me and my sisters or a friend or two, because I love the ritual of cooking all day almost as much as the meal itself. I do have to make some concessions for my studio-apartment kitchen, though: I usually swap the turkey for a much more manageable chicken and pick up a pie from one of the excellent bakeries in my neighborhood.
And I dig out my rice cooker (which I don’t use nearly enough—sorry, Mom) and make sure to stop at my favorite Chinatown grocery store so I can make the star dish. I’ve since made it for dozens of friends, sometimes in vegetarian iterations, and it’s always a hit.
The best part is it’s a one-pot meal: I’m always a little nervous when the button pops up and I go to take the lid off the rice cooker, but somehow it magically turns out to have the same irresistible stickiness I remember from childhood. (Sticky rice is surprisingly forgiving.)
One day—when I don’t have an absurdly tiny kitchen, maybe—I’ll be the one hosting dinner for my extended family and incorporating a few of my own new traditions (ask me about my mustard-roasted Brussels sprouts). Until then, I know there will be at least one constant on the table.
Recipe courtesy of my mother, Joyce Hsiao, passed down from my grandmother, Helen Yao Hsiao
Sweet Rice with Chestnuts and Chinese Sausage
4 cups sweet rice (sometimes also called glutinous rice)
6 pieces Chinese sausage (substitute tofu gan—dried, seasoned tofu—for vegetarian)
½ pound chestnuts, peeled*
¼ pound mushrooms, sliced
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cans chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1. Soak the sweet rice in cold water for at least two hours (or overnight). Drain.
2. Slice the sausage into thin circles. If the sausage is very fatty, steam it over hot water to remove the excess fat. If not, you can skip the steaming step (it will cook with the rice).
3. Rinse the peeled chestnuts and cut into halves.
4. In a rice cooker, combine the rice, sausage, chestnuts, mushrooms and soy sauce.
5. Add enough broth plus water so that the total liquid is the amount needed to cook the rice, plus a little extra since the chestnuts absorb liquid (about 1 inch above the level of the rice, or per the instructions for your rice cooker).
6. Steam in the rice cooker until the rice is thoroughly cooked. Do not open the rice cooker until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooker indicates that cooking is complete.
7. When the rice is cooked, gently fluff the rice and mix the ingredients throughout the rice. Add additional soy sauce, if needed, to taste.
8. Serve warm or use for turkey stuffing.
* To peel fresh chestnuts: Use scissors or a knife and make a large X on each chestnut. Place 4 or 5 chestnuts in a microwave oven and cook on high for about 1 minute. Peel the outer hull and inner skin from each chestnut while hot (you may need to wear gloves). Trim off any discolored spots on the chestnuts. Continue with another 4 or 5 chestnuts until all are peeled. (Editor’s/daughter’s note: While fresh chestnuts taste great, this is definitely the most labor-intensive part of the recipe. You can also find pre-peeled chestnuts in most Chinese grocery stores.)