A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week: Author, food photographer, and guest columnist Uyen Luu is sharing a stunningly minimalist dessert from her new cookbook,Vietnamese.
Much of my childhood was spent in anticipation of what my mum would cook. She’s always chasing the taste of her sweet, sour home of Phan Thiet in Vietnam.
I spent my teenage years trying to make cake and anything Western. I love British food but didn’t have any recipes. It was all trial and much error. My mum didn’t know how to bake—it’s not something you’d do in Vietnam, as no one has an oven—but patisserie is something that brings so much pleasure. So she left it to me to learn how to make the perfect sponge cake. Little did I know, she planned to entwine pandan in there when I finally got it right.
My mum had a friend, a four-foot, five-inch Cambodian lady called Lam Lien, with a very coarse, loud, animated voice. She was always perfectly dressed, with fitted homemade knitwear and beautifully blow-dried ’50s hair. She was a refugee of the Pol Pot regime to Vietnam, then a refugee from the Vietnamese.
We always called her “the Cambodian lady” because like many traditional Vietnamese people, my mum would describe people (with affection, always) rather than using their names, like “sister two,” “brother three,” and so on. Although she must have been young when we were young, we always saw her as an old lady, like a grandma, with constant sage advice to my mum about a good skin care regime and little horror stories if we don’t eat every grain of rice.
In the ’90s, when President Clinton lifted the embargo on Vietnam and we were able to buy more Vietnamese produce in the U.K., the Vietnamese ladies of Hackney were joyously dealing pandan leaves in their kitchens. They were sharing them in little plastic bags, counting coins, giving each other careful instructions: How to preserve freshness. How to squeeze out every last drop for an extract. How much coconut water to use.
The kitchen was a green mess, with circles of dark emerald extract on the surfaces. Among the pandan air, the ladies counselled each other on the health benefits of the spears. It cures everything apparently! Reuse the leaves one would say, don’t waste it, you can have another go at that.
I would arrive home from school to a small, modest flat in the inner city of London to the coconutty, grassy, and floral aroma of pandan. I could smell the sweet pasture from the ground floor—and we lived on the fourth—shifting through the meadows of boiled potatoes, beans on toast, and soggy cabbage.
Pandan meant sweet cakes were on the horizon, which lifted my spirits from a hard day. My mum would stand in the kitchen amongst the steaming pots, opening tins of coconut milk, talking to herself, cursing—the Cambodian lady is withholding information about the recipe, she was certain of it. Yet the scent was still mesmerising.
She visited us with a bamboo basket of pandan cakes every weekend. In exchange, she asked for me and my brother to teach her English. It went on for years. She brought rice-flour honeycomb cake, mung bean layer cake, chiffon sponge cake. And she would only learn: “How are you?” “I would like to buy fish.” “Thank you very much.”
That was enough for us to eagerly await Saturday afternoons and enough for her to keep making those pandan sweets, whose secrets she only half shared. We were nearest to her family of 12, 10 of whom she had lost to Pol Pot. Her gifts, her offerings of love and affection, made her feel part of a unit again.
Lam Lien is now in her 90s. Her hair is as white as the snow she stood on when she first arrived in London in 1982. She resides in Vietnam. I invited her to have dinner with my friends and family 12 years ago when Jamie Oliver visited. I gave her a taste of pandan ice cream, and she was amazed. “If only I have an ice cream machine, I would have made the best. Tell me,” she whispered, “what’s your secret?”
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