The many flavors of Turkey Day

Newton, MA., 11/06/17, Siva Koumar, owner of Walnut Grille, holds his vegan Thanksgiving meal. Siva Koumar, who is from India, opened the Walnut Grille, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant, in Newton Highlands five years ago; he also began a family tradition back then, a vegan Thanksgiving for family and friends, held at his home. This year, he'll be preparing a vegan Thanksgiving meal at his restaurant the day before the holiday and repeating the drill the next day at home. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Siva Koumar holds a plate of vegan seitan — also called “wheat meat” — at his Newton restaurant.

On Thanksgiving, whether you’re an omnivore or a vegan, a descendant of the Pilgrims or among the most recent wave of newcomers, there’s a good chance that some variation of turkey — either the real thing or an imitation — will be on the table.

In Newton, Siva Kumar will be making a vegan Thanksgiving dinner centered on seitan — also called “wheat meat” — accompanied by mashed potatoes with truffles, roasted Brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce.

In Lowell, Lucy Rodriguez will host a holiday meal featuring her mother’s Puerto Rican style turkey, marinated in olive oil infused with garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper, and served with Spanish and American side dishes and desserts.


In Braintree, Kim Keung’s family gathering will include a small, token turkey to acknowledge the holiday, but a larger platter of ham or another meat more popular with her Asian relatives and friends.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Kumar, 38, is a pescatarian — someone who doesn’t eat red meat but eats fish — and the executive chef and co-owner of the Walnut Grille, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Newton Highlands. He had his first taste of an American Thanksgiving 12 years ago, two years after coming to Boston from India.

“There was food and friends and pies,” he remembers. “I made connections when I went there. I didn’t know anyone. It was my first year [in Boston], and everyone was very warm.”

Food and farming are in Kumar’s blood. So is gratitude.

His father is a farmer in India. His mother taught him how to cook. Growing up in India, he celebrated Thanksgiving for a week every January, a festival dedicated to thanking the farmers and appreciating the land and the animals required to produce food.


After the lunch rush on a recent Monday, he sat at a table in his restaurant talking about the Thanksgiving menu, still a work in progress: there will be apple and celeriac soup and white mushroom bisque; seitan turkey, which takes two to three days to mix, ferment, mold, and boil; mashed potatoes with truffles; Brussels sprouts; cranberry chutney; vegan, gluten-free pumpkin cheese cake; and a roasted pear or apple cobbler with vegan ice cream.

The restaurant’s Thanksgiving will be held on Wednesday evening: a five-course, prix fixe vegan turkey dinner served in three two-hour sittings beginning at 5 p.m.

The following evening, Kumar and his wife, Bana, plan to welcome about 20 guests at their home in Chestnut Hill, with the same vegan menu.

“You come to America and you get a chance to enjoy these moments, the food,” he says. “I didn’t know [before] how to celebrate [the American] Thanksgiving, [or] the food, the happiness [that is] Thanksgiving.”

Lucy Rodriguez was 9 when she left Puerto Rico and arrived in Lowell with her mother, her two sisters, and her brother. Now the mother of two teenagers is anticipating a cozy Thanksgiving at home: her mother, siblings, and their families will gather for the day, sharing a holiday meal centered on her mom’s Puerto Rican style turkey and a mix of Spanish and American side dishes and desserts.


“We each bring something. . . . Every year is different,” says Rodriguez, 47.

But one tradition remains the same. Every year, the family attends a 7 a.m. service at their church and afterward returns home to start the cooking.

“I think it’s important to be thankful,” Rodriguez says. “Being alive, having our family together. . . . for the blessings God has given us. Many people want to come here [to the United States] but they can’t.”

On Thursday, when they gather around the table, the family will say grace, giving thanks for matriarch Sofia Rodriguez’s health, remembering those who are hungry and don’t have food, and offering their thanks for the meal that awaits them: the turkey with Puerto Rican seasoning, the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), cranberry sauce and stuffing, two or three homemade Spanish desserts (including arroz con dulce, sweet rice with coconut milk, raisins and cinnamon), and store-bought apple and pumpkin pies.

Later in the day, they’ll watch a movie together, another family ritual.

“I learned about it in school, and everybody around [us] was celebrating Thanksgiving,” Rodriguez says, remembering how as a little girl she longed to be a part of a holiday that now brings her so much joy.

Thirty years ago when she was a teenager, Kim Keung’s future husband invited her to his family’s home for Thanksgiving dinner.

“I liked it. Wow!” says Keung, 45, who was about 8 when her family escaped from Vietnam by boat and survived a dangerous journey to the US. “We had turkey, American side dishes.”

When she married into his family, Keung and her husband, Chi Yung, joined a family Thanksgiving rotation, celebrating the holiday at a different home every year until the family grew too large to accommodate everyone.

So a few years after the Keungs moved into a big house in Braintree, they began a new tradition that has continued: Thanksgiving at their home.

“Every year, we have 40 to 50 people at our house,” says Keung, describing a day of eating and socializing. “The boys play video games or go out and play basketball. The girls hang out in my older daughter’s bedroom and chitchat or play board games. The older adults play mahjong. And some of the men watch football. They stay until almost midnight.”

The women in the family share the cleanup.

Keung’s holiday menu is a fusion of American and Asian recipes, but the turkey assumes a symbolic place, smaller than the platter of ham, prime rib, or roast pork the family prefers.

Side dishes include hot and sour soup, Chinese vegetables, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, string beans, and macaroni and cheese for the kids. Desserts range from Vietnamese rice pudding prepared by Keung’s mother to her cousin’s Maine blueberry pie.

Every year, someone brings a new dish. What remains unchanged is the holiday sentiment.

“Because of the life we have now, both parents have to work, the kids have school and activities, and our lives are so busy all the time,” says Keung.

“It’s a blessing that everyone can take a day off and come together and chitchat and just be present. . . . [And] it doesn’t have to be just relatives. A friend, a homeless guy. . . . “We come together. We have each other.”

11/06/2017 LOWELL, MA L-R Lucy Rodriguez (cq), William Cruz (cq) 14, Jessica Graciani (cq), Sofia Rodriguez (cq), Lexie Graciani (cq) 4, and Chanelle Cruz (cq) 19, enjoy arroz con dulce at their home in Lowell. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Lucy Rodriguez (left) and her family enjoy arroz con dulce in Lowell.

Braintree Ma 11/05/17 Kim Hua Keung (cq), left with her mother in law Po Chun Chan-Keung (cq) and sister in law Winnie Keung (cq) with all the ingredients they use to make sticky rice which is a Thanksgiving Day meal tradition. Their sticky rice is made with sweet rice, shitake mushrooms, dried scallops, dried shrimp, and Chinese sausage. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff) topic reporter:
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
(From left) Kim Keung, mother-in-law Po Chun Chan-Keung, and sister-in-law Winnie Keung with all the ingredients they use to make sticky rice, a Thanksgiving meal family tradition.

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at