The All-American meal is upon us: Thanksgiving. Apple pie, turkey and cranberry sauce; mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing. I have always been intrigued by this holiday meal because even though I was born and raised in America, none of these things were really familiar to my palate except for once a year, on Thanksgiving. (A phenomenon also discussed by Andrew of the blog Beyond Chinatown, who compiled some great interviews on the Chinese American Thanksgiving here.) But as I’ve learned through the years, not many people eat turkey and cranberry sauce except on Thanksgiving—whether All-American or not. In fact, turkey wasn’t always the must-have main course until the last century—and perhaps a famous painting by Norman Rockwell. Before that, American families gathered around the table for turkey, chicken, cod, oysters, duck, ham or any fish, fowl or beast that was plentiful to them, there and then.
So when it comes to “traditional Thanksgiving sides,” I’m even more skeptical about the need to stick to tradition. Among those common sides is candied yams, which I do not much care for. I can’t understand the sense in adding more sweetness to a naturally very sweet tuber in the form of brown sugar or marshmallows. (I recently learned my distaste for sweetened sweet potatoes is shared by my fellow half-Chinese food blogger Molly Yeh when I had her on my podcast this past Sunday—listen in!) But as sweet potatoes are a seasonal vegetable, I wanted to incorporate them somehow. Offsetting their sweetness with some warm Indian spices sounded like a good foil—if totally non-traditional.
There is one overarching tradition about Thanksgiving that I do love, though, and it’s simply the idea of centering a holiday all around cooking and eating together. And from what I know, filling, folding and pan-frying Chinese dumplings is a perfect vehicle for spending time around the kitchen with the ones you love, working together. So curried sweet potato potsticker dumplings it is.
You don’t have to have an arsenal of whole spices like I used here. But if you do, toasting and crushing a little blend of coriander, cumin and mustard seeds is pretty fun. (Smash them against a bowl with the backside of a Chinese soup spoon, or the blunt end of a rolling pin if lacking a mortar and pestle.) Or just use a favorite curry spice blend off the rack—your pick. It’s your house, your holiday, anyway.
This dumpling filling is deceptively easy (even easier if you just use a crushed spice blend, too). And its savory, spicy sweet potato filling is really easy to fill and fold into dumpling skins, unlike shredded veggie-based fillings. It’ll delight any vegetarians or vegans at the table. And you can make ’em as spicy or not as you like. I brought them to my friend Aaron’s annual pre-Thanksgiving Friendsgiving potluck last weekend, where they were enjoyed by a scampering mess of kids along with parents and us food geeks and such.
For the real Thanksgiving this week, I’ll be making dumplings too—only with traditional Chinese dumpling fillings, for a Chinese feast the night before Thanksgiving proper. It’s an annual tradition in my family: one big Chinese meal before a major holiday, and the American meal (e.g. turkey, etc.) the night after. For the most part, each cuisine keeps to its own night, although sometimes a mashup sneaks its way in.
It’s only natural that many families mash up the foods they love along with the people they love on Thanksgiving, the holiday that’s all about eating together. Even if you’re all of the same cultural heritage, there are so many influences of taste all around you, if you just talk, eat, and listen together—maybe someone just had a business trip in Dubai, or someone’s grandmother is from Turkey (no pun intended). Maybe a cousin long ago spent a semester abroad in Spain, or Japan, or who-knows-where, and has fond memories of flavors that they’d like to revisit.
You can always generate great conversation around food, and perhaps more understanding about different cultures and heritages while at it. Everyone has something different to share, so why make the same thing, the same way, each and every year?
Food traditions by way of popular culture only can be ignored until you make them a tradition—and maybe make them a little something of your own. (There is no Thanksgiving ghoul that’ll get you for not roasting a turkey!) I think the best way of solidifying a traditional dish like that Norman Rockwell painting did for turkey is by making something with love and having a lot of fun while you’re at it. So whatever you do, if making this recipe below, try to do it along with others to share the work, and eat it amongst many, too. It’ll taste much better that way.
Curried Sweet Potato Dumplings
(makes about 36, or about 4 servings)
1 package dumpling wrappers (about 36, or make them from scratch following the recipe here and here)
3 lbs sweet potatoes
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (or ground and skip toasting and crushing step)
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds (or ground and skip toasting and crushing step)
½ teaspoon mustard seeds (or ground and skip toasting and crushing step)
1 cardamom pod, husk removed
½ teaspoon white or black pepper, freshly crushed
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon butter or neutral oil such as vegetable
1 teaspoon salt, or add to taste
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as vegetable, for pan-frying
Peel the sweet potatoes and chop into evenly sized chunks. Cover with water and boil until just barely tender. Drain and let cool.
Meanwhile, heat the butter or oil in a large saucepan and cook the onions over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes, stirring.
In a dry pan, heat the coriander, cumin and mustard seeds over high heat, stirring or shaking the pan frequently, until fragrant (about 30 seconds to 1 minute). Remove from pan immediately. Add to a mortar and pestle along with the dehusked cardamom pods and crush well (or pulse in a spice grinder a few times).
Stir the turmeric, cayenne pepper and paprika into the onion and garlic mixture. Stir in the crushed spice mixture and mix well to combine. Remove from heat. Coarsely chop the cooked and cooled sweet potatoes and fold into the onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let mixture cool until cool enough to handle.
To fold the dumplings:
Place a spoonful of this mixture onto the center of a dumpling wrapper. Dip your finger into a small bowl of water and trace the edge of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper in half and make a pinch at the top; next, bring a piece of the edge about half an inch to the right of the pinch over to the pinch. (This will cause the wrapper to fold diagonally on the right hand side of the dumpling.) Bring a piece of the edge half an inch to the left over to the pinch next. Pinch the pieces you brought to the center shut and continue to seal the edges to the left and right until the dumpling is fully sealed. From an aerial view, it should be shaped like a crescent.
Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a non-stick skillet that comes with a lid over medium-high heat. Arrange the dumplings in a circle around the edge of the pan. Fill the center with as many dumplings as will fit – do not squash them against one another too much (you will probably need to cook in 2-3 batches, depending on the size of your pan). Let cook uncovered 1-2 minutes, or until the bottoms of the dumplings are just beginning to lightly brown. Add about 1/4 cup of water to the pan and cover the pan immediately.
Let cook covered for about 3 minutes, or until the wrappers appear transparent rather than whitish at the edges. Uncover the pan and ensure that all the liquid has evaporated. Carefully loosen the potstickers from the pan with a spatula. To make a fancy plating, place a plate on top of the dumplings and invert the pan, to serve the dumplings crispy side-up.