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How We Became a Pakistani Family That Celebrates Thanksgiving

Oct 1, 2018

A colleague of mine recently asked if I celebrate Thanksgiving, and I responded with: “Does it involve family? Check. Does it involve exorbitant amounts of food? Check. Of course, I celebrate Thanksgiving!”

For anyone of Pakistani origin, family and food is everything — and not necessarily in that order.

No matter what the occasion, if it involves an eating frenzy, count us in. Thanksgiving is not a traditional Pakistani festival but our first-generation Canadian parents gradually succumbed to all that talk of turkeys around them.


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At first, it used to be just a family dinner over the long weekend. Then somewhere down the line, someone suggested that turkey be invited to the dinner table as well. Then gradually, the common turkey fixings began making an appearance: things like stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and roasted baby carrots. However, a key contentious issue was the lack of a rice dish. So wild mushroom rice was introduced, which was met with mixed reviews as most people preferred a spicier, more flavour-packed rice dish as is traditional in Pakistani cuisine.

So a few years ago, on popular demand, biryani joined the ranks of turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner. And there was no going back.

Biryani is the jewel in South-Asian food’s crown. If you are of Pakistani or Indian descent, or any other type of South Asian, chances are that biryani is either your favourite dish, or at least features on your top five list. It is a meat-based rice dish, made with red meat, chicken or shrimp, in which the rice is cooked separately in fragrant spices, while the meat is prepared in a tomato and onion-based gravy, often with potatoes. The rice and the meat curry is then combined in alternating layers, with mint leaves spread in the middle. Everything is steamed together until it combines into glorious harmony. Then the angels sing.


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It is a labour of love, and when done right it's the perfect combination of savoury and spicy elements with a tang, since either yogurt, tamarind or plum sauce is also added in between the layers of rice and meat. The meat is delicious and falls off the bone. It is, put simply, umami at its best.

Biryani can also be a controversial topic, as heated debates will spontaneously break out in South Asian spheres over who does biryani best since different regions have slightly varying ways of making it.

My mom’s biryani, I believe, has magical healing powers, and can cure every ailment up to and possibly including death.

As my cousin put it, whether biryani should be made with or without potatoes should have been an election issue in Pakistan earlier this year.

My mom’s biryani, I believe, has magical healing powers, and can cure every ailment up to and possibly including death.

So, when biryani joined hands with turkey at our Thanksgiving meals, it became a much anticipated annual tradition. A perfect mix of east and west, a physical representation of all we have to be thankful for.


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This melange of cultures seems to be happening in all spheres of our lives. We have kept the traditional South Asian wedding events, and added on bridal showers and bachelorette parties. Traditional ceremonies of welcoming a new child have been supplanted with baby showers and gender reveal parties. Eid celebrations go hand in hand with Christmas décor and dinner. At the end of every meal at a get-together, a head count is conducted for who wants a “Timmy’s run” versus who wants chai (there’s always someone who picks both). The result is that we are a lot happier in our hearts, and a lot poorer in our pockets.

To me, that is the beauty of belonging to two different cultures, of knowing the rhythms of two very different worlds, of understanding two greatly varying perspectives. It is being able to count, curse and convince in two different languages. It is taking the beauty of one and combining it with the beauty of another to make something uniquely charming. It is turkey, with a side of biryani.

And now the cure to all ailments: my mom’s chicken biryani recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Mom's Chicken Biryani

Ingredients For Meat Curry

  • 1 lb chicken with bone, cut into pieces
  • 3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 3-4 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground garam masala
  • ¼ cup yogurt/tamarind sauce/plum sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon orange food coloring (powder)
  • 10 mint leaves
  • 10 coriander leaves
  • 1-2 green chilies, finely chopped
  • 2-3 potatoes cut in chunks (optional)
  • Salt, to taste

How It's Made 

  • Heat oil, add finely chopped onions and fry until golden brown. Add minced garlic and ginger and stir for 1-2 minutes until aromatic.
  • Add the chicken pieces and chopped tomatoes and cook until the chicken is no longer pink, 1-2 minutes.
  • Add red chili powder, turmeric powder, garam masala and salt, cover and cook for 15 minutes at low-medium heat.
  • Once chicken is mostly cooked, add potatoes. Let cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Remove lid and cook on high flame until the water evaporates, all ingredients combine to form a thick gravy and the oil starts to separate from the gravy.
  • Add green chilies and keep warm.

Ingredients for Rice

  • 3 cups basmati rice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 black cardamoms
  • 1 star anise
  • 3-4 cloves
  • 3-4 whole black peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon whole coriander seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cumin

How It's Made

  • Bring 6-7 cups of water to a pot, add all the dry spices and basmati rice.
  • Boil rice for 5-7 minutes on medium-high heat until al dente (do not let rice cook through completely or they’ll become too soft when combined with the curry).
  • Drain rice in a colander and set aside.

How to Layer the Ingredients

  • In another large pot, add a quarter of the meat gravy and layer with a quarter of the cooked rice.
  • Add a handful of mint leaves and a tablespoon of yogurt/tamarind sauce/plum sauce.
  • Repeat layers as above till all ingredients have been consumed.
  • Mix food colouring with 2-3 teaspoons of water and pour all over the top layer.
  • Cover the pot and steam the biryani on low-medium flame for 20 min.
  • Remove the lid and combine all the layers.
  • Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot.

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Article Author Yumna Siddiqui-Khan
Yumna Siddiqui-Khan

Read more from Yumna here.

Yumna Siddiqui-Khan is an accountant by day, and writer and amateur photographer by night. A Toronto native, she now resides in Ottawa with her spouse and their 3-year-old spawn. Her photography, musings on life and the lessons learned through parenting can be found at the Institution of Parenthood.

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