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Immigrant families in Tampa Bay share the dishes on their Thanksgiving table

From pad Thai to lechon kawali, it’s a multicultural smorgasbord.
USFSP International Club's vice president Maria Novoa Pinzon and international student adviser Angelica Rodriguez Jimenez put the finishing touches on the club's Friendsgiving potluck. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]
Published Nov. 18
Updated Nov. 18

Every Thanksgiving, Top Kachornpoo’s mother makes pad Thai, sometimes egg rolls. There’s the corn bread souffle his Vietnamese wife makes, a puddinglike specialty guests look forward to every year. His sister-in-law will likely bring a pasta dish or two, a nod to her husband’s Italian heritage.

And of course, there’s a turkey. Always a turkey.

“Sometimes we fry it; sometimes we roast it,” said Kachornpoo. “It’s like a big multicultural event.”

Kachornpoo, 33, moved to St. Petersburg from his home in Udon Thani, a city in northeastern Thailand, when he was 3 years old.

“We came for a better life, mostly,” he recalled. “The reason everyone comes here.”

Back then, everything in America felt new — the food, the cars, the clothes. American traditions were novel, too, but none more so than Thanksgiving, a holiday his family had never heard of before coming to the United States.

It was strange, at first. But they adapted quickly, and over the years, the family made the tradition their own.

Turkey became a staple on their holiday table, alongside a piece of home — a spicy papaya salad, to help liven up the blander Thanksgiving staples, or a platter of freshly rolled spring rolls to welcome guests.

RELATED: Get the recipe for pad Thai

For Kachornpoo and so many other immigrant families that have made the Tampa Bay area home, what was once foreign has become a treasured annual tradition they now call their own. We spoke to them about their Thanksgiving celebrations — about the dishes they can’t live without, the traditional foods they finally warmed up to and what the holiday means to them.

From Colombian arepas to a Russian roasted duck, Lebanese meat pies and Filipino lechon, these dishes represent a multicultural melting pot, right there on the plate.

An international Friendsgiving

Maria Novoa Pinzon photographs her homemade platter of arepas and Colombian hot chocolate. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]

There were friends, there was family and there was food — so much food.

It felt like Christmas, said Maria Novoa Pinzon.

“I thought it was so beautiful — a holiday that was just a day to be thankful,” said Pinzon.

That first Thanksgiving, most of the dishes were still so foreign for Pinzon, who had just moved from her home in Bogota, Colombia, to pursue a degree at the University of South Florida.

Angelica Rodriguez Jimenez flips Domincan sausage in a skillet before serving it alongside cheese and mangu. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]

There were also the nonfood Thanksgiving traditions that seemed bizarre: watching football during the meal, the mad rush to the mall to jump on those Black Friday specials.

Four years later, Pinzon, 22, now a senior studying psychology at the university’s St. Petersburg campus, has celebrated the holiday in many different ways: with her aunt, and her extended family members; with her mother, when she came to visit one year; with her boyfriend’s family.

The university's International Club met for a Friendsgiving potluck recently. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]
From left to right: Michele Pitticco, Casey Ellis, Mateo Tomasella and Diana Acostandei, members of USFSP's executive board. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]

By now, Pinzon has incorporated dishes from her upbringing into the annual feast. The cheese-stuffed arepas and hot chocolate she makes have become her specialty. When her mother visits, there is also ajiaco, a hearty Colombian potato and chicken stew flavored with lots of garlic and herbs.

“It takes a lot of work,” Pinzon said. “So my mother makes that.”

This year, Pinzon is lucky enough to get two holiday dinners: a Friendsgiving with a group of her peers, all international students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and a dinner with family on the actual holiday.

There will be plenty of arepas at both.

RELATED: Get the recipe for arepas

Maria Novoa Pinzon adds butter to arepas. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]
Morir sonando, a sweet Dominican drink, sits among a host of potluck dishes. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Special to the Times]

A Lebanese-American feast

A Mediterranean spread at Phoenicia Market in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Nabih Beydoun only takes three days off work: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The owner of Phoenicia Market in St. Petersburg has called Florida home since 1991. Born to Lebanese parents in Sierra Leone, Beydoun, 60, cut his teeth in the diamond business in his late teens and early 20s. He doesn’t recall ever celebrating Thanksgiving in Africa.

Eventually, like so many of his family members before him, Beydoun moved to Dearborn Heights, Mich. It was home for many years — the area has the largest Lebanese population in the United States — but eventually Florida’s warmer weather beckoned.

Owner Nabih Beydoun at Phoenicia Market in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

For years, Thanksgiving was celebrated at Beydoun’s mother’s home in Michigan, with his brothers, their wives and children. All of the traditional foods were present: roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce. But the meal always began with the foods from their home: stuffed grape leaves; eggplant and zucchini filed with a savory mix of rice, tomatoes and onions; and sfeeha, tiny hand pies filled with everything from sun-dried tomatoes and pomegranate paste to ground beef, meat and cheese.

Rolled eggplant stuffed with rice. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

When Beydoun’s mother passed away in 2006, his family started hosting the celebration at their St. Petersburg home, where his wife, Mirvet, usually prepares the meal.

Keeping the tradition alive was important, Beydoun said.

“Back home, at lunch we all sit down together. At dinner, we all sit down together,” he recalled. “In America, everyone here is always working."

Falafel line a rimmed baking sheet at Phoenicia Market, a store specializing in Mediterranean foods and products. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
A trio of homemade dips and spreads: hummus (top left), eggplant baba ghanoush (bottom) and yogurt spread known as labneh. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Their Thanksgiving meal is still largely a collection of all-American standbys and Lebanese favorites; the roasted turkey is right there next to the sfeeha.

Beydoun’s children love the hummus he makes, as well as the baba ghanoush, a roasted eggplant dip drizzled with olive oil, and the labneh, a thick, strained yogurt topped with dried mint and oregano.

To cap the evening, the family resorts to an all-American classic: pumpkin pie.

“That’s all we’ll do for dessert,” Beydoun said. “We’re trying to cut down on our sugar.”

RELATED: Get the recipe for baba ghanoush

Meat pies at Phoenicia Market. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

A Filipino smorgasbord

Lumpiang sariwa and lumpia hubad is on the menu at Mata's Philippine Cuisine in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

For her first Thanksgiving, 16-year-old Ellen Mata got a lecture.

“My grandfather told me, ‘This is Thanksgiving, and you have to eat turkey,’” she recalled.

Mata refused.

“We don’t eat turkey," she told him. “We don’t even like turkey.”

It was 1968 and Mata had just moved to California from her home in Manila, in the Philippines. While the Thanksgiving tradition wasn’t completely foreign (the Philippines was a U.S. territory during the first half of the 20th century and had already adopted a version of the holiday), many of the dishes — including that turkey — still felt very strange.

Delio Mata and his wife, Ellen, own Mata's Philippine Cuisine in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Lechon kawali at Mata's Philippine Cuisine. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

That was 51 years ago, and a lot has changed. One evening, while she was still living in Santa Maria, Calif., she met Delio Mata while bowling and decided to marry him. They went on vacation to Florida and liked it so much they decided to move to Largo, where they raised three children, started a successful Filipino catering business and last month opened their first brick-and-mortar, Mata’s Philippine Cuisine, in Tampa.

Throughout the years they celebrated Thanksgiving with a mix of both Filipino and American dishes. And the children? They always wanted turkey.

Eventually, Mata caved.

Now the family has two turkeys, one deep-fried and one roasted, so that all the kids — and grandkids — are happy. And there are a lot of kids: The annual celebration includes roughly 100 people every year.

To lessen the burden, the family takes turns hosting — one aunt’s home this year, a cousin’s apartment the next, and so on. Every family brings a dish or two, and the result is a multicultural smorgasbord, from green bean casserole and ham to lechon kawali — chunks of fatty pork belly that get crunchy and golden in the deep fryer — and pork sisig, a stir-fried pork dish with onions and jalapeno peppers. There area also crispy-fried lumpia, filled with ground beef and vegetables, and pancit, the ubiquitous stir-fried rice noodle dish tossed with vegetables and Chinese sausage.

Pork barbecue skewers. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

For dessert, Mata’s daughter, Lena, makes her famous halo halo, which sits right next to the fruit salad and bibingka, a sweet rice cake made with coconut milk and baked in a pan lined with banana leaves.

RELATED: Get the recipe for lumpia

A Thanksgiving meal, in Russian

When Maria Starr first moved to Florida from Russia in 2007, she didn’t think she would be staying long.

Moscow was home. Florida was not.

Starr had followed her mother and brother, a promising tennis player who was enrolled in school at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. Starr was ill, and Florida came with the promise of better nutrition, plenty of sunlight and expert medical care. It was just supposed to be for a couple of months.

The months passed, and Starr’s health recovered. Though her brother eventually returned to Russia, Starr and her mother discovered that somewhere along the way, the Sunshine State had become their home.

That was 12 years ago, and Starr, now 21, is a junior studying mass communications at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Every year, Starr and her mother celebrate Thanksgiving. The celebration reminds them of a harvest-time festival back home in Moscow, where people would gather apples and honey to make blini while celebrating the start of fall.

Throughout the years, Starr and her mother came up with a group of holiday recipes of their own. Instead of a turkey (“too dry,” Starr said), they roast a duck.

Their signature dish is a small pumpkin or squash hollowed out and filled with rice pilaf studded with roasted pumpkin chunks, carrots, peas and cranberries. The dish serves both as a serving vessel for each guest and also as a little take-home container for leftovers, while adding an unmistakable autumnal flair to the dinner table.

“We don’t have a staple dessert,” Starr said. “But we do have a pumpkin pie — I think it’s from Publix.”

RELATED: Get the recipe for roasted duck

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