Love & Tres Leches (and Other Stories)

A collection of short essays about interpersonal connections through cultural cuisine

Growing up with immigrant parents, there has always been a missing link in communication. Every conversation has to jump the barriers of language, culture and impatience. However one indestructible connection between us has been the key to my personality and relationships: food. In this collection of pieces, I share how four different culinary dishes intersect my identity. (Fun Fact: These were my college essays!)

I. Love & Tres Leches 

Sitting on the Chuy’s To-Go order shelf sat an untouched slice of Tres Leches cake, left forgotten by the customer who was meant to pick it up three hours ago. This milk-soaked sponge cake was then given to the mouths of my ravenously hungry coworkers and I. Thus began my unprecedented Tres Leches obsession.

I would never consider myself a baker, rather an innocent civilian who refuses to spend $8 on a slice of cake. After two failed attempts of forcing my little brother to make it for me, I decided to take matters into my own hands, searching for an authentic recipe. I eventually stumbled upon a wholesome abuelita named Jauja, yet quickly discovered the 5 minute video had no English instructions. The voices of all my past Spanish teachers echoed in my subconscious, using Google Translate was to admit defeat. “¡No habla inglés!” rang persistently in my head. I hit the replay button and opened a new page in my notebook, determined.

As the sponge cake rose and transformed to golden brown in the oven, my family gathered around in awe as a faint vanilla smell wafted out through the kitchen. I iced the cake with homemade whipped cream, delicately laid sliced strawberries around the cocoa-covered diameter, and gingerly cut a slice for my family. With our busy work schedules, this was one of the rare times our family could come together for dessert. Seeing my brother jump with delight after the first bite made me realize how small acts of presence and intention could make someone’s day.

After one week, the 9” cake was diminished to only crumbs, courtesy of my brother’s growing adolescent appetite. I decided to bake the cake again, superstitiously following Jauja’s recipe. From my hourly cake endeavor updates on social media, incredulous responses flooded my messages, “You’re making that cake again?” “Isn’t this, like, the third time this week?” This was true, my fridge’s three dozen egg supply from Costco was now dwindling after half a week. However, it was worth the happiness I had the privilege of seeing. Met with the smiles of friends and family, I realized the true power of love and Tres Leches.

II. Baby Brains

My brother calls them “baby brains.” There, in our white IKEA ceramic bowls lay steaming wonton dumplings, the delicate folds in the wrappers resembling small, round, cerebral shapes. Each dumpling is handmade by my mother and I: always set up, cooked, and eaten at the island table. I’m not sure why, but I’m adamant that such tradition is strictly followed. As my mother cradles the yellow plastic mixing bowl in her arms, mixing the pork filling with her chopsticks– “Always go in one direction!”– I sit on the bar stool to watch.

Our kitchen is constantly filled with stories. With jumbled childhood narratives interjected by quick cooking tips gifted from each generation’s mother to daughter–“Only add sesame oil at the end so it doesn’t waft away!”– our family history and Hong Kong identity make up the food.  I’ve been taught since birth that each dish shares a small look into one’s life, and to partake in eating it is always a privilege. As my family’s wonton recipe is passed down from kitchen to kitchen, I hope to pass along our stories as well: in my writing, at dinner around the island table, and to the community. Our love, lessons, and wisdom- all enveloped into these palettes of savory, sweetness, and spice.  


III. Extra Tortilla Chips

Ringggg! “It’s for you!” My fellow worker in To-Go exclaimed excitedly to me. I jokingly dragged my feet to answer, although I truly didn’t mind, as I knew her least favorite part of To Go was talking to strangers over a landline. Telephone in one hand and chip scooper in another, an enthusiastic Texan chirped in my ear, overjoyed to find a Chuy’s in their new neighborhood that reminded them of home. At first, I smiled in incredulity at how one could have such an emotional connection to enchiladas. However, I’ve come to the realization that without Chuy’s, I wouldn’t have learned who I was either: through conversation and extra tortilla chips.

 I’ve talked to many people over the phone, from confused customers looking for the Raleigh location, beloved regulars with orders I recall instantly from caller ID, dramatic complaints, to the wholesome overjoyed Texans. There’s beauty in that each of us live in our respective timelines of existence, yet all converge at the commonality of Tex-Mex food. Many stories have met my ears: a ten minute call from a dedicated sister ordering a surprise dinner from across the country, vocational dreams of my coworkers as we capped 2 oz salsa containers, and many recollections of frustrating customers that didn’t tip.  I always enjoy listening. So, even if it’s a busy Friday night, I’ll pick up the phone.


IV. Saudade 

Note: Originally published in 2020, this has been rewritten.

I believe the beauty of languages and cultures is in the untranslatable yet fundamentally comprehensible. The way a string of sounds conveys such strong emotion, it transcends language barriers. From the Cantonese idioms I’ve grown up hearing my animated parents express yet unable to replicate, to the rapid Spanish discourse inside the sweltering Chuy’s kitchen that makes me instinctively smile. Regardless of fluency, we are all human, empathizing without knowing, filling ourselves with stories of the same love, joy, and despair as we rotate around the sun.

I only truly hold one memory of Hong Kong with my maternal grandmother, Puo-Puo.  I only spoke English and she only understood Cantonese, so we would end up just not talking much at all. Yet while she didn’t comprehend my words, I could still recognize her love. Waking up in her high-rise apartment,  I would see a fresh batch of my favorite pork and veggie bao she had bought from the market at dawn. “Ho sik ah?” she would ask. Is it good? I could only nod my head, yes— but that was all we really needed. Steaming pork and sweet cabbage filling inside soft white buns: bao, a special language that only Puo-Puo and I understood.

On a visit years later, I immediately noticed the buns that awaited me tasted off. The cabbage ratio was wrong, the pork was blander and the bao was crumblier. I instantly relayed to Puo-Puo, what were such imposter bao doing here? I want the regular ones! My heart broke to learn that my favorite bun store had permanently closed. I started eating less bao, voluntarily offering them to my brother. Eating them just didn’t give the same feeling. Time passed and Puo-Puo’s health declined, unable to walk to the market every morning. Eventually, I would stop eating bao altogether.

Bao made by my mom and I.

My last visit to Hong Kong was six summers ago, and Puo-Puo passed away two years later.  I can still remember the city as if I was in her apartment, sitting next to the open steel window on the 18th floor. I can close my eyes, feel the calmness from the twinkling city lights, the adoration from Puo-Puo’s gaze, the taste of that first bun. There lies the thin tie to my Hong Kong identity, memories I wished I had more of: conversations with Puo-Puo, had I spoken Cantonese; walks around the island, had I woken up earlier; family reunions, had I tried socializing.

I’ve been looking for a way to describe what this meant to me, to be nostalgic for something I had never truly experienced, a contradiction of feeling emotions that I am not entitled to.

There is a Portuguese word, saudade, for what I have never been able to explain. Saudade – an intense state of yearning for a time that has passed, or has possibly never existed. I have pondered on this paradox I’ve identified with for so long.  How can I long for someone I barely talked to? Miss a place I rarely visited? I am at a loss for words to describe it in my mother tongue, and yet saudade finally gave me solace in another language I cannot speak.

It is with saudade that we love and ache for the past so fiercely, past concrete comprehension of the reason why. It is saudade that tethers the old memories of Puo-Puo and I, and it is saudade that is still perpetually within my newer ones. Found as I read old newspaper articles, fondly remembering our staff’s disjointed but passionate brainstorming sessions. Seen as I shuffle through my stack of keepsake letters, comfort from the scuffed envelopes holding the words of my pen pals and decade-old birthday wishes. Throughout my seventeen years, it has appeared in all the small corners of my world.

As I continue to make my journey around the sun, I search for it endlessly: saudade.