Ethnic side dishes for Thanksgiving

Why not spice up your Turkey Day? Dare to tinker with classics like marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes.
Nov. 13, 2019
Curried sweet potatoes can be a delicious addition to your Thanksgiving table.
Curried sweet potatoes can be a delicious addition to your Thanksgiving meal. Photo: Getty Images.

We go out to eat at what we call “ethnic” restaurants all the time, I am guessing in order to change up our diet a bit, or because we’ve developed a hankering for the tasty depth of a Vietnamese broth, say, or the chile-heat of Mexican fire.

And culinary borders are crossed in opposite directions, too. I was heartened to read, last winter, in a local magazine called “Asian Avenue,” (“Connecting Cultures; Linking Lives”) and in its lengthy piece laying out the menus for many Asian-American Thanksgiving Day meals, that those profiled look forward to adding some of their own “ethnic” dishes to a traditional, turkey-centric,  Norman Rockwellian dinner.

So, on November 28 this year, why not flavor some of the conventional Turkey Day dinner dishes with some ethnic flair? I offer three recipes to do just that.

Calabacitas is a traditional Mexican or Southwestern U.S. preparation of corn and soft-skinned squash. It’s a ringer for traditional American succotash, subbing pinto for lima beans and, of course, adding a zinger of chili heat.

I’d venture to say that, worldwide, you’d find taro or yucca (also called cassava or manioc) eaten as a mashed starch by many more folk than dine on potatoes. Having mashed taro or yucca root instead of mashed potatoes this year will put you in taste touch with most of the Southern Hemisphere. You’ll find the raw root at many Asian or Latin grocers, in its raw tuber state, or in the frozen vegetable section, chopped up.

And for another recipe, dare I tinker with the sacred marshmallow-topped yam? Yes, I do.

On a recent ethnic eating outing of my own, I ate some Indian-style sweet potatoes, napped in a masala (or what’s commonly called “a curry”), that just sent me. They were so delicious, so layered in flavor, so “sweet” sweet potato, that it was like the treat of eating dessert during the main meal.

I heartily encourage you to think of them as your own Thanksgiving Day dinner sweet potato turn.

Pueblo Style Calabacitas

From, adapted from Mollie Katzen’s “Sunlight Cafe”; serves 4


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup yellow onion, minced (or white, red, or green)

1 cup Anaheim chili, minced (or use poblano chiles)

1⁄2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

1-2 teaspoons chili powder (optional)

2 cups zucchini, diced

2 cups whole kernel corn (cut from 2 ears, or defrosted frozen corn)

2 teaspoons garlic, minced

3⁄4 cup cooked pinto beans (half a 15 oz. can, optional)

Grated Monterey jack cheese or cheddar cheese

Fresh ground black pepper

Lime wedge


Place a medium skillet over medium heat for a minute or two. Add the olive oil, wait about 30 seconds, then swirl to coat the pan. When hot enough to sizzle a bread crumb, add the onion, chiles, salt, and optional chili powder, and cook, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes, or vegetables become quite soft.

Add the zucchini, corn, garlic, and beans, if using, and continue to cook, stirring gently to avoid breaking the beans, for about 5 minutes longer, or until the zucchini is just tender. Make sure not to overcook the zucchini. Remove the pan from the heat.

Sprinkle in the grated cheese to taste and stir to distribute it as it melts. Add black pepper and more salt, if needed to taste. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature, along with lime wedges to squeeze over, on the side of each serving.

Cook’s notes: You can make this up to several days ahead. Store it in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator, and reheat in a microwave or in a covered dish in a 300 degree oven. Anaheim and poblano chiles are moderately hot. For a milder flavor, remove and discard the seeds. You can also substitute canned green chiles. Fresh corn, shaved right off the cob, is perfect. But defrosted frozen corn is fine too.

* * * *

Mashed Malanga, Taro, or Yucca with Bone Broth

From by Amanda Torres


1 pound malanga, taro, or yucca, peeled and coarsely chopped

Either 3/4 to 1 cup beef or chicken bone broth, or about 1/4 to 1/2 cup broth and 1/2 cup coconut milk

2-4 tablespoons fat of choice (olive oil, lard, ghee, butter, palm shortening), optional, but recommended if not using coconut milk

Salt and black pepper to taste


Begin by rinsing your root well under running water. Then, use a kitchen peeler to peel taro or malanga. Use a sharp knife to peel yucca. In all three, look for any soft or discolored parts and cut those out.

Chop into chunks about 2-inch long and add to a pot filled with filtered water. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 25 minutes or until very tender and easily pierced with a fork. If using yucca, remove the stringy, tough, fibrous center from each piece.

Strain in a colander, then add to a large bowl. Mash with a potato masher. Add bone broth, coconut milk, or optional oil to desired consistency (may require more or less than what is suggested here; just keep adding and mashing until the consistency looks good to you).

Cook’s notes: If you like, use a hand mixer to whip your mashed starch. Serve immediately. You may also use any of these mashed starches as a topping for shepherd’s pie.

* * * *

Indian-style Sweet Potatoes


1 tablespoon cooking oil

1 tablespoon cumin seed

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons peeled minced ginger

1/2 small serrano chili, seeded and minced

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped (or equivalent in canned whole tomatoes)

4 cups sweet potato, peeled and cut 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped


In a large pan or pot, heat the oil on a medium high flame. Add the cumin seed and cook until it sizzles nicely, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Lower the heat slightly and add the garlic and ginger (or garlic-ginger paste; see note) and the serrano. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the sliced onion and cook until the onion has softened and sweetened considerably, anywhere from 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the salt, turmeric powder and tomatoes, stirring. Let the mixture return to a simmer. Add the sweet potatoes, coating well with the spices and onions. Lower the heat to medium, or until the whole mixture is at a healthy simmer, and cover the pot, cooking until the sweet potato chunks are fork-tender, about 15-20 minutes.

To serve, add the lemon or lime juice and the chopped cilantro leaves, mixing them in well.

Cook’s note: Substitute 3 tablespoons “garlic-ginger paste,” available at Indian grocers, for the garlic and ginger listed.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.