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Banana Leaves, Sazón Rubs And Negimaki Are Thanksgiving Traditions Too

Central American immigrants and their families pray before Thanksgiving dinner on November 24, 2016 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Ahhh, the "traditional" Thanksgiving meal. Turkey. Stuffing. Potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Pie. For many Americans, that's only a starting point, a canvas for the cuisines of their native cultures. Immigrants have been making the Thanksgiving meal their own since the holiday was invented.

KPCC/LAist's John Rabe spoke with actor George Takei and cooking show host Pati Jinich about their holiday traditions.

Jinich, who immigrated here from Mexico, seasons her turkey with "a little Latin sazon." Nope, not the popular spice mix, although many people, like our own health reporter, Michelle Faust Raghavan, grew up eating Sazón-rubbed turkeys.

"Instead of making the traditional turkey, which I of course love too, I started making this for my friends," Jinich said. "I give them a Yucatán-style brine in the Pibil tradition. So the turkey goes marinated in achiote paste, diluted with bitter orange and roasted tomatoes and roasted onions and roasted garlic."

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She lets that marinate for 48 hours then stuffs it with a mix of cornbread, brown chorizo, bacon, apples and pecans.

"I wrap it all in banana leaves and give it like five to six hours steam bath and then finish it with a nice roast so the skin will become super crisp. By the time you open that up, it's so incredibly fragrant and the meat is just falling off the bone, and it has a really homey yet exotic taste, which I think is a welcome addition. I think people love classic Thanksgiving dishes, but sometimes they find an addition of an ingredient or sazon to be refreshing."

You still get white and dark meat but the white meat is not incredibly dry because it's been marinated. The banana leaves also help keep the turkey super moist and juicy and they give it "this very wild tropical fragrance," Jinich says.

Syrian refugees and community leaders join together for a #RefugeesWelcome Thanksgiving dinner on November 20, 2015 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for

George Takei grew up with a different spin on Thanksgiving.

He says the centerpiece of his family's holiday meal, when his mother was still alive, was the traditional turkey. But she added a Japanese touch with negimaki, vegetarian sushi, served as an appetizer at the meal.

"Nori is that black dry seaweed that's wrapped around these rolls and then, in the center, were holiday colored vegetables plus an egg that she had made into an omelet and sliced," Takei says. "There was spinach and red ginger and boiled and sauteed kelp. And also what we called footballs, inari, tofu that had been scooped out and made into a cup. It was filled with sweet vinegar rice and little bits of carrots. That's the Thanksgiving I grew up with, so that does say Thanksgiving to me."

Takei and his husband, Brad, don't cook for Thanksgiving, so they go to a restaurant or a friend's home. Takei also expresses gratitude because, "We do have people that care about our democratic process and participate. So I'll give thanks for that -- as well as having the best man."

Jinich, the host of Pati's Mexican Table, says, "For me, Thanksgiving is all about appreciating what we all bring to the American table, different waves of immigrants through time that are here now in America."

Eva Dotti of Long Beach wrote in to tell us:

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"My family immigrated to SoCal from Mexico in the 50s, so we have always had some iconic American themes -- the turkey, a ham adorned with pineapples and cherries, peas, potato salad, BUTTER. But, we also add Mexican rice, beans, mole, tortillas. The best leftovers are potato salad with mole (don't knock it). For the past 7 years or so, I've hosted Thanksgiving. My husband is a French immigrant, and I've been so immersed in French cooking that it's also made it's way to the table: haricots verts, carottes vichy, baguettes, Camembert cheese, charcuterie, cornichons. Somehow, it all belongs."

Slices of pie are ready to be served during The Salvation Army and Safeway's 18th annual "Feast of Sharing" on November 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
They're just a few of the people who have infused Thanksgiving with their cultural traditions. We want to know: What do you do to make the Thanksgiving meal your own? Click below or tell us on Twitter @LAist.

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