How Two Cooks Mix Cuisines at Thanksgiving to Make the Holiday Their Own

Aliya LeeKong at her stove. Photo courtesy Leekong.

At chef Timon’s home, the turkey is brined mojo style, using a mix of sour orange and cumin. For cookbook author Aliya LeeKong, bobotie, a sweet and spicy cottage pie from South Africa, replaces mashed potatoes. For many, today’s Thanksgiving table boasts versions of traditional dishes that originate in immigrant upbringings. Consequently, these dishes are replacing expected staples altogether with cultural signatures from around the world. We spoke with Chef Timon Balloo of Brooklyn’s SUGARCANE Raw Bar and Grill, and cook and TV personality Aliya LeeKong to tell us of how their own Thanksgiving staples reflect their roots.

The daughter of immigrant parents from Pakistan and Tanzania, respectively, Aliya LeeKong’s grew up in Maitland, Florida. “Cooking has always been that place of inclusion, and, for me, no other holiday embodies this better than Thanksgiving,” she explains. “We go pretty traditional for the turkey, but our cultural signatures are totally in the sides.”

This year, instead of parker house rolls, Aliya is throwing Khaliat Nahal, Yemeni honeycomb bread, into the mix. “They’re super fluffy, filled with cream cheese and glazed with an orange blossom-scented syrup.”

Trini Macaroni Pie, a baked mac and cheese flavored with onions and garlic and studded with scotch bonnet chiles influenced by her husband’s West Indian background, will also grace the table.

Taking her global food philosophy outside of what’s served at Thanksgiving, Aliya created the hashtag #everyoneiswelcomeatmytable, a collection of recipes from around the world curated on Instagram. “I made the hashtag in part to raise awareness, but it’s honestly my personal means of processing this concerted exclusion,” she says. “Despite all of the uncertainty, my own identity remains clear. I am a cook who celebrates all cultures and cuisines.”

Chef Balloo at his Dumbo restaurant. Photo courtesy Sugarcane.

For chef Balloo, his Thanksgiving spread is representative of a multicultural America. As the son of a Chinese-Trinidadian mother in San Francisco, meatloaf and mashed potatoes were rarely seen at the table. Thanksgiving was the one holiday that was made into an American celebration, complete with Stove Top stuffing and mashed potatoes.

Paying homage to the instant stuffing of his childhood, Balloo incorporates chorizo in the mix. Depending on whether he’s celebrating in Miami or elsewhere, he’ll alternate between Cuban bread, or challah and brioche.

“In my home, no meal is complete without a good peppa sauce, a Trinidadian staple,” he mentions. A blend of carrots, onions, scotch bonnet, vinegar and a handful of other ingredients, peppa sauce replaces salt and pepper at his table, adding nuances of sweet, spice, heat and acid to a meal. Similar ingredients are used to make a gravy mixed with pan drippings to accompany his staple of jerk turkey.

“The beautiful thing about the melting pot of the U.S.​ is how the demand for knowledge through developing palates is taking precedence,” explains Balloo. “That, for me, is showcased at my holiday table where friends and family from all walks of life gather, break bread and share a meal together.”