Sometimes, when I especially miss my mom – which lately, has felt like all the time – I’ll think about the ways I used to ask her what Vietnamese dishes were named. I could only speak in textures and colors, referencing restaurants buried in streets whose names I didn’t know and the smell of certain herbs. Even now, my aunts and uncles will pause in the middle of their dinner conversations, look across the round table at me, and ask me in Vietnamese, “Do you understand?”
I usually smile and say yes. I never learned Vietnamese, aside from this deep understanding I can’t really name, where really, I get it, I promise. I just can’t say.
The only truly sweet dessert I liked growing up was this one che whose name I can’t remember. It always came in this slender plastic cup, all its gelatinous and thick ingredients beautifully stacked. Even as a kid I had this weird thing about symmetry. The cup would be filled halfway with thick coconut milk and these dark, sweet, red-black beans. It was always topped with finely crushed ice and green gummies made out of rice and sugar. I was 10 years old and I’d eat that che all the time.
Sometimes my dad will still get me a cup when I come to visit him. I didn’t cry at my mom’s funeral, but I’ll put certain things in my mouth and this lump will rise in my throat, out of nowhere. I’ll think of the foods my parents would make for me, the dishes they’d order for me at Vietnamese restaurants, so I didn’t have to know their names.
My mom was the only person in our family who truly liked sweets. During heat-wave summers, she would make trays of single-serving flan, pale yellow and quivering in their white ramekins. It was the only time we’d use the oven in the summer. I would come downstairs and see the ramekins sitting in water on baking sheets, and everything would smell like steam and sugar and butter, and I sort of imaged that’s how hot Vietnam was. Those rare times my mom would mention Vietnam, it was always in the context of the heat and fresh sugarcane juice, her favorite.
My mom had bad asthma when I was younger, and apparently only Ricola cough drops and flan could soothe her. Every spring she would smell like nothing but Ricolas and burnt sugar. She’d keep a few tucked into her Chanel purse, her Armani pockets. When the cancer spread to her lungs the house was filled with them, like it was spring again, like I was 10 years old again. They’re still there when I come visit. I can’t watch Ricola commercials. Lately this feels like the only food story I can really tell.
My mom had pretty perfect English, up until the end, when it was either her age or the chemo that did things to her memory. Sometimes we said it was both of those things. She would look at me for the longest time, pausing in the middle of a story. Her perfect tattooed eyebrows would furrow and she’d ask, “What’s the word for that?” And then she’d repeat herself, in Vietnamese, “What’s that word again?” She would say a shape, a color, a texture, a place she’d half remember, hoping it would jog my memory, and a lot of the time I would say I get it mom, I promise. And I did, but I just couldn’t say.
Maybe I’m wrong, and we all return to our native languages in the end, whatever those are. The dishes we can’t name but remember so clearly – the textures, the colors, the smells. Maybe there will only be this lump in my throat and the both of us unspeaking, hoping our sadness is just like sugar in its capacity to caramelize, to melt.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup filtered water
2 cups whole milk, or if you’re my mom and a believer in decadence, use 1 cup whole milk + 1 cup of cream
4 large brown eggs
1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 350°F. Melt ½ the sugar and the water in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves – then boil until the caramel is deep amber. Pour quickly into cups (my mom: “Ramekins.”). Take your milk/cream and remaining sugar, melt over low heat. Whisk the eggs and slowly pour into the milk/cream. Add the vanilla and salt. Divide amongst your cups, arrange in a baking pan filled with an inch or so of water. Bake until the centers are just set, about 45-50 minutes.