When asked about how immigrants celebrate Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on the rich tapestry of traditions within my own community. Many of my community members celebrate by cooking in their homes, but the menu diverges from the typical American fare of turkey, stuffing and apple pie. Instead, we indulge in a typical Somali meal for special occasions, “bariis iskukaris,” a delicious rice dish infused with a blend of aromatic spices. The rice often contains many things, such as tomatoes, onion, pepper, garlic, cumin powder, chicken, lamb or beef, and we never forget to have bananas served alongside it.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth and can be contacted at noriftin@gmail.com.

Living between two cultures, I’ve come to appreciate both the American and Somali ways of celebrating Thanksgiving. In the Somali household, a cherished tradition involves spreading a mat and gathering in a circle to share a communal plate of bariis iskukaris. This communal dining experience, fostering a sense of connection and unity, stands in contrast to the American tradition of individual place settings and a number of different foods. It is customary for the Somali family to invite anyone they know in the community, and instead of extending the kitchen table, we spread more mats across the house.

Those communal meals hold significance beyond mere sustenance. Eating together strengthens family bonds and fosters a deep sense of connection and gratitude for one another. Additionally, it is customary at these meals, both culturally and religiously, to consume all the food on one’s plate, leaving nothing to waste – a practice I continue to uphold at American Thanksgiving dinners.

While I maintain the practice of finishing all my food, I’ve embraced the American tradition of sitting at a table rather than on the floor, and I’ve found that the array of desserts that follows the Thanksgiving meal is my favorite aspect of the American Thanksgiving celebration. In Somali traditions, desserts are not part of the main course, and the concept of “dessert” is not directly translatable into Somali.

The culinary preparations for Thanksgiving also highlight the cultural differences between the two celebrations. While Americans typically shop at larger grocery stores, my immigrant community frequents local halal markets, specializing in halal meat, primarily chicken and beef. These markets, though smaller than their mainstream counterparts, play a vital role in our culinary traditions. As a child in Somalia, I recall that the vibrant outdoor meat markets were a source of excitement, offering fresh meat and vegetables. The contrast with the more sterile, packaged meat from American markets sometimes evokes a sense of nostalgia for the flavorful foods of my youth. When I strolled through the meat markets growing up, you could smell the meat, and the commotion of people bargaining for the price of a pound of it was often the music of the city.

One of my most cherished “giving thanks” events was the Istunka – a communal celebration that brought the entire city of Mogadishu together along the Indian Ocean. Passing houses, we were offered coffee, water, snacks or even meals. The famous outdoor fish market volunteers would fry fish, camel or goat liver. Although it has been over a decade since I celebrated Istunka, as I savor my turkey and relish my apple pie, I reflect on the journey I’ve undertaken, the traditions I’ve embraced, and the gratitude for the abundance of food on this Thanksgiving day.

As we gather with our families this Thanksgiving, it is essential to open conversations about diverse eating habits and traditions. I believe it is beneficial to all of us to learn. I feel more empowered as I grow stronger in both cultures and it is common when I eat with members of my community that we also reflect and talk about American ways of cooking and dining.

Comments are not available on this story.