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Wines That Shine With Cross-Cultural Holiday Menus

Four Americans share their diaspora culinary traditions — with bottle recommendations

Regine T Rousseau By November 23, 2021
photo illustration of various country's flags on wine glasses
Photo illustration by Pix

Google Thanksgiving dinner and the top images are of a glossy brown turkey, juicy pink ham, bright red cranberry sauce, waxy green beans, and mashed potatoes so fluffy that you can feel them on your tongue. According to social media and Hollywood, this is the standard for Thanksgiving meals. However, for many first- and second-generation Americans, Thanksgiving dinners look quite different.

The Vietnamese version

Thai Dang, owner and executive chef of HaiSous restaurant in Chicago, grew up with a Thanksgiving menu that’s authentically Vietnamese. The youngest of nine children, Dang recalls he wasn’t sure exactly what Thanksgiving was, only that it was a chance for the entire family — all his siblings worked two jobs — to be together in one house. “It was a day for us to be together and be thankful to be in America.”

On the menu were traditional Vietnamese dishes, “such as pomelo salad with sautéed shrimp, hand-shredded papaya salad with Vietnamese jerky, and pickled lotus root with pork belly and shrimp.” As these salads require extensive preparations, Dang adds, “they only appear at the table on very special occasions.”

He remembers that when he was younger, his mom would have a pot of Hủ Tiếu simmering, a rice noodle dish of seafood and pork, with Vietnamese herbs and a mixture of Chinese chives and blanched watercress for added texture and flavor. “While the soup simmers, and the salads are ready to eat, we enjoy some of Mom’s grilled pork ribs and barbecue chicken wings off the grill. The marinade she uses has five-spice, oyster sauce, honey, garlic, and lemongrass.”

As Dang’s siblings began to have their own children, “some of my siblings would pitch in to try to make mac and cheese, roast a dry ass turkey with gravy, yams, and mash potatoes to add to the mix. The American food was for the kids. We blended Vietnam and America at Thanksgiving by making literally a separate table for the kids to enjoy, along with American pies and ice creams.”

While the Dang family used to drink Heineken and Remy Martin, such spicy foods can be paired with sparkling Vouvray.

The Haitian approach

Ferande Deller’s Thanksgiving table, in Evanston, Illinois, blends Haitian flavors with American tradition. Haitian turkey en sauce is her family’s favorite, where the turkey is cut into large pieces, pan fried at a high temperature, then left to simmer in a “luscious tomato-based sauce, seasoned with habanero peppers, roasted garlic, green peppers, and sweet Vidalia onions. The meat is slow-cooked until it falls off the bone and the sauce thickens into velvety smoothness.” 

In place of the honey-roasted ham, this family prefers the pork shoulder. Known as griot (gree-oh), big chunks of pork are marinated, then deep-fried until crispy on the outside, and served with garlic fried plantains and pikliz a condiment made of pickled veggies, usually carrots, cabbage, Scotch-bonnet peppers, and garlic pickled in vinegar.

Mashed potatoes are replaced by potatoes au gratin, a thinly sliced French potato casserole. Deller makes her version with gruyere, parmesan, butter, and nutmeg, along with secret ingredients she refuses to divulge. There is no counterpart for Haiti’s beloved mushroom rice, known by the Deller’s American friends as, “that delicious black rice your mama makes.” This mushroom-based rice tastes earthy, with the added sweet green peas to give it some complexity.

A bottle of Haitian Rhum Barbancourt Five Star is a perfect gift for any Haitian host, but when it comes to wine, the ideal match is a high acid, fruity wine with soft tannins that won’t mind playing backup singer to this Caribbean band of flavor. Did someone say Cru Beaujolais

It’s all in the sauce

Kesana Francis, originally from Antigua, and now the sales concierge at Little Mo Wine & Spirits in Brooklyn, says, “Oxtail is the most anticipated dish at Thanksgiving dinner.” Oxtail refers to the tail of male or female cattle, no longer just the tail of an ox. “First the oxtails are cooked on a stovetop, or baked in an oven, to properly cook and soften the meat.” Then, everything from oil, black pepper, tomato paste, minced garlic, and minced ginger to a variety of spices, are added to create the sauce. “The showstopper is the sauce; it must be made to perfection.” The secret, says Francis, is to burn the sugar to produce a caramelized flavor. The oxtail is served with macaroni pie, corn souffle, and fried dumplings.

This menu is rich and decadent; spicy, sweet, and savory. From the rich oxtails to the creamy mac and cheese, it needs a velvety, fruity, and savory wine to face off with this menu. A Lambrusco would be perfect.

A true blend

Co-owner of Crazy Bird Chicken in Chicago, Illinois, Breanna Speed’s blended family is Filipino, African American, and European American, and their Thanksgiving spread represents all sides of their hyphens. For protein options, baked sweet and sour whole fish sits center stage next to a traditional oven-baked turkey seasoned with fresh onions, celery, and freshly ground herbs and spices.

For sides, homemade pancit noodles with fresh vegetables and chicken pieces is staged next to a four-cheese truffle mac and cheese. The dessert table features traditional sweets, “Buko pie made of sweet rice,” says Speed, and “ube cake, a chiffon cake or sponge cake made with ‘ube halaya’, purple yam.” On the American side, creamy sweet potato pie made from white Asian yams.

Given how serious this family is about their desserts, something like a Moscato from Asti will work from dinner to dessert, thanks to its natural sweetness, high acid, and freshness. 

4 wines to pair with non-traditional Thanksgiving dishes:

bottle of Matteo Soria Moscato d'Asti DOCG 2017

Matteo Soria Moscato d'Asti DOCG 2017 ($16)

Naturally sweet and bursting with flavors of tropical fruits, white flowers, citrus fruit, and sweet herbs. This fresh, crisp, and satisfying wine is flexible and can pair with sweet, salty, and sour dishes. 

bottle of Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Pétillant Demi Sec NV

Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Pétillant Demi Sec NV ($22)

This 100% Chenin Blanc organic wine from the Loire Valley has a creamy texture with soft and playful bubbles. On the palate, there’s pear, honey, and apples. The wine’s bright acidity and sweetness makes a perfect option to pair with spicy foods, sweets, or dishes that present both elements.

bottle of Licataa Emilia-Romagna Lambrusco NV

Licataa Emilia-Romagna Lambrusco NV ($29)

The mouthfeel on this wine is velvety, alluring, and delightful. An equal match for the opulent sweet and savory sauce that accompanies oxtails. This semi-sweet wine has flavors of cherries, violets, blackberry, and rhubarb.

bottle of Château du Moulin-à-Vent Couvent des Thorins 2018

Château du Moulin-à-Vent Couvent des Thorins 2018 ($30)

This vegan-friendly wine is rich with red and black fruit; red cherries, raspberries, and black berries. The wine is dry and earthy, with a surprising sprinkle of black pepper. A perfect canvas for Thanksgiving flavors, whether Caribbean or American.