Chicken

The Chicken Recipe My Family Carried With Them on Their Journey to America

How two sisters survived war and separation.

May 21, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Sarah Jampel.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones. This week, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, writer Lisa Lee Herrick explores her family's tormented past to reveal the roots of her favorite home recipe.


When I was growing up, there was only one thing that I looked forward to more than winter break and Christmas: my mother’s sticky chicken wings stuffed with ground pork and herbed glass noodles, roasted until golden with a spicy fish sauce–caramel glaze. It was a glistening, umami-packed delicacy delivered from her tiny kitchen only once a year for Hmong New Year, just in time for my aunt’s weeklong visit for the festival. I remember the salty-sweet tang of sea brine sharpening burnt sugar, earthy black mushrooms melding with savory minced pork, crispy roasted chicken skin crackling under the broiler, the redolent steam fogging every window and clinging to our skin like the sillage of a rich perfume. I dreamt about those chicken wings all through college and even once I moved to San Francisco, long after I had left my mother—but before I realized how much I missed her.

My mother is named Flower, and her elder sister is nicknamed Aunt Green (for her miraculous ability to cultivate life from even the driest cracked earth). They are best friends—and inseparable in the way that only sisters bonded with shared secrets can be: utterly and completely. Even now, they call each other every day to gossip.

Aunt Green, true to her name, tends a lush garden overflowing with chickens and wild bees. Her face is golden and freckled, her toasted skin stretched taut across Tatar cheekbones. She tells dirty jokes and slaps her knee, throwing her head back so you can see her back teeth when she laughs.

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“I will re read another time for the recipe, the story of its creation is too touching to not want to try it but, please tell us what happened to your father and brothers. ”
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My mother, on the other hand, is pale and shy, afraid of both the sun and public speaking—preferring, instead, to tinker about in her kitchen mixing potions and tasting spices. Mom loved experimenting with heat and chemistry in her kitchen because she had grown up without electrical appliances or running water, and American foods intrigued her. Mayonnaise perplexed her. She couldn’t tell the difference between ketchup and marinara—spaghetti night is still confusing.

Food was our shared language long after English words blunted their tongues while Hmong words soured on mine; food was a door remained ajar despite indefinite silences. And learning about how my mother perfected this recipe for stuffed chicken wings with her sister, after they escaped the refugee camps and death, became the key to unlocking the truth behind our family’s desperate journey to America.


One of my earliest memories is dragging a chair next to my mother, the heavy feet scraping across the linoleum floor, and climbing atop the seat to witness her kitchen magic—how she made pink and soft things brown with spitting oil; how she could coax exotic smells from unimpressive twigs and leaves; how you could taste the fire of a split chili with your entire body. It was during one of these observations that my mother first told me about her life before America.

“When I was your age,” she said, as she pinched the soft elbow joint of a chicken wing between the shoulder and forearm, “I lived in a beautiful wood house in a village in Laos. My father was a very important man, and we had a farm that could feed the entire village so everyone could eat meat more than just once a year during the New Year.”

The joint crunched in her deft fingers as her hands snapped the wing in half.

“We had great storehouses full of rice and corn, and everyone in the village was happy,” she said. This had been a revelation: I had always assumed that my mother grew up in a miserable lean-to hut strapped together from palm fronds and vines, scrabbling on the dirt floor, not a modern house like ours. I watched her peel back the yellow, puckered chicken skin to the elbow joint and carefully scrape off the pink meat with a paring knife.

“My older brother was still alive then,” she said, “and my mother, too.”

She wrapped her thumb and index finger around the drumlette bone and yanked it until it popped out of its socket. This was the first time she had mentioned that she had an older brother. Or a mother.

“When the war reached our village, General Vang Pao arrived and instructed us to burn everything down,” she said. “All the storehouses, too.”

“But why?” I asked.

“Because, if the Viet Cong captured our village, they would kill us all and live in our houses and fill their bellies with our rice,” she said. “It was better to lose everything but live, so we burned down our house and all our food, and we ran to Longcheng.”

She told me about how they fled at night, her father carrying her on his shoulders all the way to the American air base hidden high up in the mountains—about how some fathers killed their children instead, called it mercy, too afraid that toddlers would tire too easily or infants would cry and alert the enemies in the trees. She told me how, in Longcheng, they built a new house—even more beautiful and more spacious than the previous—but on the day that it was finished, the war was over and the Americans had lost. The last cargo plane had left the runway, and the Communists were coming.

“And then what happened?” I asked.

“We got separated. My sister and I, we ran and ran and didn’t stop until we reached Thailand,” my mother said. She twisted and yanked out two more bones. “We were the first to go to the refugee camp, Ban Vinai. Each day, we searched the new faces for our father, our mother, our brothers. Each day, we wandered like ghosts, wondering if we were already dead. If this was Hell.”

She unrolled the chicken skin so that only the silhouette of the wing, emptied of itself, remained.

“We had nothing—no money, no family, just the clothes on our backs and whatever we could strap to our bodies. We talked to Hmong from all over Laos, and tried to remember our lives before the war. We fantasized about what we would cook in our kitchens when we returned home, all the fantastic new foods we had heard about from Hmong who lived with Lao and Khmer. We went to sleep dreaming of sitting in our houses, eating this food,” my mother said. “All we could do was wait and dream and hope.

Learning about how my mother perfected this recipe for stuffed chicken wings with her sister, after they escaped the refugee camps and death, became the key to unlocking the truth behind our family’s desperate journey to America.

“When our family arrived a few months later, we were just so happy they were alive. We couldn’t have known then that we would be trapped there for four years, or that we would never see our village again.”

When her half-brother in Hawaii finally agreed to be their sponsor, tragedy struck and my mother and her sister found themselves alone, again: Their father was too ill for the trip and their brothers stayed behind in the refugee camp.

And, while the sisters waited on an island thousands of miles away from despair, they explored new ways to communicate the flavors of their journey—the bitterness of losing their country, the sharp sourness of new consonants, the foreign salty sea air, sweet sisterhood, and the deep richness of hope for the future.

It was a dish that was first stripped of its essence, emptied out, then filled again; made more enchanting through blending and reinvention, taking on new shapes and new textures until our mouths wanted nothing less. This was something new. It would be the story of how our family was transformed into many things. It would become the easiest way to speak about how to carry pain, endure and reshape it, and find sweetness in new beginnings.

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Lisa Lee Herrick

Written by: Lisa Lee Herrick

7 Comments

Bella95 June 2, 2019
Came here to read the recipe but found myself scrolling past all the recipe parts to read the story. I like to think of myself as empathetic but some things are just unimaginable to a middle class, middle aged white woman living in safe little New Zealand. I will re read another time for the recipe, the story of its creation is too touching to not want to try it but, please tell us what happened to your father and brothers.
 
Melanie June 2, 2019
Thank you for sharing your family's story, how touching and intriguing. Your writing left me wanting to hear more about the journey. I can't wait to taste these wings! What a wonderful family recipe.
 
Pat T. May 22, 2019
Thank you for sharing this very poignant story. You have touched me to the core. And yes, these stuffed chicken wings are AMAZING!
 
Eric K. May 21, 2019
"It was a dish that was first stripped of its essence, emptied out, then filled again; made more enchanting through blending and reinvention, taking on new shapes and new textures until our mouths wanted nothing less." I love this line so much.
 
Bobbi May 30, 2019
I’m with you, Eric. I was on the verge of tears and totally lost it after reading that line. Thank you Lisa for sharing your story. It is deeply touching. I had the pleasure of tasting your mom and aunt’s recipe at Food52 and I’m so grateful.
 
Bella95 June 2, 2019
Same. Beautifully written and so descriptive of the creation of this dish and all that it embodies.
 
Carlos C. May 21, 2019
This is such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. I tasted Hmong stuffed chicken wings in Wisconsin. It seemed like they were made with magic the way so much goodness was stuffed into the skin, which remained so crispy.