Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
This year will be the year of the tikka masala turkey. I have planned it out, procured the special spices, found the perfectly sized bird and amassed large quantities of tenderizing ginger and garlic. My goal is simple: a perfectly cooked bird that has never known the meaning of bland or dry and against whose briny interiors taunts of tastelessness slide away.
I plan this sort of route nearly every Thanksgiving. Each time, I am convinced that a new strategy (say, soaking in vinegar), a novel tactic (removing the skin), a rejuvenated arsenal of spices (you’ve never seen these quantities of red chili powder) will enable my victory against the turkey – producing the delectable bird of my Thanksgiving dreams.
This proposition, in my spice-soused imagination, is perennially irresistible. Why not marry the best of America with the best of my native homeland, Pakistan? It is food as metaphor, food as the basis for a deeply felt union. I believe this, and so I try and keep trying.
My quest has a long and storied history. It began almost two decades ago, when I bought my first turkey at my first Thanksgiving. A teenage bride just arrived in Nashville (another story for another time), I was determined to participate in this most American of traditions with full fervor. My then-mother-in-law tried to tell me the turkey required protracted defrosting, at least a day before it could be cooked. I didn’t like advice then (or now), and so I ignored her. That first turkey was not only bland and dry after it was cooked, it was not actually cooked until several days after Thanksgiving. All I had to show that day of gratitude was a rock solid frozen bird sitting sadly in my small apartment sink.
I did not give up. A few Thanksgivings later, goaded by the cheery encouragements of supermarket specials (I am inordinately excited by these), I decided to try again. I wanted to learn from my failures, so I decided the whole bird was a bit too much for the still-tiny apartment kitchen. Chastened by experience, I bought turkey breasts instead of the whole turkey. But because they are cheap and because I love making large meals, I bought six. These, I decided, I would bake with an assortment of potatoes and onions and root vegetables. It could not go wrong, I assured myself. I added cumin, coriander, nutmeg and turmeric.
A long half a day later, the thing was done. It was a qualified victory. The spices seemed to have slipped off the turkey breasts and rolled down into the vegetables, making them nearly deadly. The turkey breasts tasted like turkey breasts, though, which is to say like nothing at all.
I never admit defeat right away, and I didn’t then. Instead, I went about offering the five remaining ones to various neighbors. I had only one taker, a British lady who was in the country for not very long. I made up a heaping plate and dropped it off at her apartment, excited to draw her into the festivities of a truly American celebration. I never heard from her again.
In ensuing years I have reflected on my efforts to spice up the turkey and remained undaunted by those who scoff at them. As a South Asian-American used to chickens that are (at least in Pakistan) not hormonally enhanced, the sheer size of the turkey is enthralling, as is the idea of transforming it into a spicy and delectable dish. When a relatively small chicken doused or baked or grilled in tikka masala tastes so good, imagine a large turkey.
Fueled by the fervor of this possibility, I tend to ignore logistical challenges. In South Asian cooking, spices are added to hot oil and permitted to sweat before the addition of any meat. This presents a challenge where the turkey is concerned – how do you roll around a bird so large in sweating spices, and what tremendously sized pot set over a gargantuan burner would make this possible?
Worn out by November wars, there have been years in which I have tried to forget about conquering the turkey, been close to admitting defeat against its gamey inflections, its haughty perseverance against flavor.
But this year I will be taking another shot at tikka masala turkey. I have found a new and very hard-to-find brand of particularly potent spice mix, and figured out how I can brine the bird in the concoction for days. I’ve begun the process, as I steadily envision the cumin and the coriander, the chili powder and the ginger, seeping deep into the bird, birthing juicy spicy flavor from the inside out.
I just know that I will produce the perfect turkey this year, finally wedding South Asian culinary zest with American tradition.