How my Chinese parents reluctantly embraced and perfected their Christmas turkey

December 20, 2021
How my Chinese parents reluctantly embraced and perfected their Christmas turkey

This First Person column is written by Amy Chung who lives in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

For almost 20 years, my parents have prepared two Butterballs at Christmas — one for us, and a second for our Pakistani neighbours in Toronto after learning they had never tried turkey.  

In return, we’d receive samosas and sweets. This meal exchange between two immigrant families with second-generation kids, who didn’t customarily celebrate Christmas, became its own delicious tradition. 

But this wasn’t always so. My dad loathed eating turkey. 

One Thanksgiving, my dad announced it was off the menu.   

Baffled, my siblings and I protested. 

“But we’d be the only ones who won’t have turkey at school!” we stammered.

Up to that point, turkey had been served almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas, alongside velvety mash and gravy. This bird was our connection to our Canadian friends and teachers and the “Hallmark” world outside our home and now, he was jeopardizing that.  

My dad was confused by our reaction. 

“But why? It’s dry meat!” he scoffed, in response. 

Amy Chung’s father, Peter, cooks the Christmas meal in their family home in Toronto in 2016. (Amy Chung)

My Hong Kong dad introduced us to the world of Cantonese food: dim sum, suckling pig, roasted goose, clay pot rice. These recipes are steeped in delicious flavour and history dating back more than 2,000 years, but all we wanted that day — and every holiday — was a simple, roasted turkey coated in butter. 

Luckily, he relented. 

And turkey we received, in perpetuity.  

There was no time to debate. It was the day before Thanksgiving and turkeys were nearly sold out. We rushed him into the car and headed directly to the supermarket. We huddled over the last two turkeys  — a tiny, basketball sized one, and the biggest turkey we’ve ever seen — an 18-kilogram Butterball. 

“OK, which one?” my dad asked, looking at the two, hoping for none. “That one!” we replied, pointing at the bigger bird. “You sure? Can you eat all of this? It’s 40 pounds!” As kids, ages six to 10, we had no clue what cooking 18 kilograms of poultry meant. But we soon learned our lesson after eating leftovers all week.

Both my parents never ate turkey growing up. Over time, they reluctantly embraced, and eventually perfected, making it after watching dozens of cooking shows. The secret: A Butterball turkey; an overnight salt brine and a hot water bath during cooking. For dessert, my mom made her famous cheesecake.  

Cooking is how Chinese parents express love. Making these dishes well gave them pride and for us kids, comfort. And to everyone, joy. 

My parents also cooked for our friends who didn’t have a place to go at Christmas and sometimes, they outnumbered our own relatives. Holiday dinners in our home were a big, boisterous feast of Asian and Western dishes. My best friend, Tiffany, was a regular during our university days. “I was alone [in Toronto] and my family lived abroad so I was grateful to be included,” she told me.

My parents found a way to make the bird uniquely their own with an Asian twist — marinating the skin with Chinese spices and decorating it with prawn chips, similar to how Cantonese-style chicken is served at banquets. 

Now that I married into a French family, I see how different Christmas is in European households — there’s tradition and rules and an airtight guest list restricted to family. No random friends would or should crash dinner unless invited to do so. 

It’s ceremonial. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best, the house is decorated and there’s a designated menu and seating. On Christmas Eve, older relatives attend midnight mass and after that, the kids would open gifts from “Santa.” For us, it was pragmatic, red envelopes of cash that came in handy for Boxing Day. 

And with food, Christmas is a time to pull out all the stops: 

This photo shows some of the seafood which is traditionally served at Christmas in France. (Amy Chung)

Champagne. Foie gras. Oysters. Smoked salmon. These four are mandatory appetizers for  Christmas in France. For mains, you could be served a capon — a castrated rooster; fowl or pheasant. And dessert, a bûche de Noël

My family loves all these foods, too, so we now mix some French elements to our Chinese-Canadian family Christmas with seafood and foie gras. 

Interestingly, the French rarely ate turkey.

So, in the end, maybe my dad was right about turkey? 

Peter and Jenny Chung’s turkey recipe

This is the Chung family’s Christmas turkey marinated with an Asian twist. (Amy Chung)

Duration: 2 to 5 days.

Feeds: 10 to 15 people. 

Disclaimer: This recipe is made for a nine-kilogram (20-pound) unstuffed turkey. The Butterball brand is recommended. Please read the label on how to properly defrost your turkey and for cooking instructions. This home recipe works for us, but may have a different result for others. 

  1. Slowly defrost the turkey in the fridge. This is dependent on the size of your turkey but for a nine-kilogram bird, it should be five days.

  2. Once the turkey is completely thawed, make a salt brine. Submerge the whole turkey in ½ lb. of salt and cold water overnight or for about 12 hours. Mix well until salt is completely dissolved. Make sure the entire turkey is in the water. If you can’t fit the whole bird in a pot, brine it in the sink. If the skin is peeking above the water, soak a paper towel in the saltwater brine and place it over the skin to prevent it from being exposed to air. Keep the towel hydrated throughout the brining process. The towel should never be dry. 

  3. Optional: Prepare room temperature butter if you want to spread butter underneath the turkey’s skin. 

  4. Take the turkey out of the brine and pat it dry with a paper towel. 

  5. Marinate the turkey for two to three hours with any flavours you like. We use salt, pepper, garlic powder, Chinese five spice, Dijon mustard and soy sauce. Sprinkle salt and pepper inside the cavity. 

  6. Prior to cooking, spray oil on your cooking pan. 

  7. Foil the bird’s wings to prevent burning.

  8. Preheat the oven to 450 F. 

  9. Take out a second pan or tray and boil some water. Once boiled, pour the water into the pan or tray and place it on the rack below the turkey whilst cooking. This will keep the bird moist. 

  10. Keep watch and refill it as water evaporates. Always use hot water to prevent lowering the cooking temperature. 

  11. When the oven is preheated, slide the turkey, back first, and broil for 10 minutes or until it’s brown. Keep watch to not burn the bird. Then, turn the pan around to its chest side and cook on low at 250 F for about three hours. 

  12. While it’s slow cooking, you can take the turkey out from time to time to baste it, using the juices from the pan to prevent the skin from drying. Don’t forget to refill the water bath. 

  13. When cooked, take out the turkey and use a sharp knife or fork to pierce between the chest and thigh. My dad’s preferred tool, a BBQ skewer, helps to prevent ugly markings.  If it runs clear, it’s done. If it’s bloody, put it back to cook a little longer. 

  14. To finish, broil for five minutes to brown the turkey. Keep watch. Once it’s browned, switch off the oven and remove the turkey. 

  15. Let the turkey rest with foil covering it for 15 or 20 minutes before carving. Baste or brush the skin with melted butter for a glossy effect. 

Bon appétit! 

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