I scramble up the steps of my childhood home, overpacked suitcase in hand. First, I hear the dogs barking, the sound of the storm door clicking open, and then all at once: the paws, the sudden yellow light of the kitchen, my parents simultaneously welcoming me home and urging the dogs to calm down, and the smell of phở, or canh chua (sour soup)—or whatever Vietnamese dish they happen to think should be my first meal home—wafting through the entrance. It's a scene that has repeated itself dozens of times over the years. For the remainder of my stay, as it was in childhood, there will be sliced fruit brought to my desk as I work, or a plate of stir-fry surreptitiously slid across the dining room table while I’m on a video call. Food is my parents’ love language. But when I witness this production and think about what it took for them to raise me—to make sure I was not only fed, but fed food that connects me to my culture—I am overwhelmed by the thought of work. I’m always relieved, then, to find some evidence that they had help; that they did not have to do it alone. Which is exactly what I find in a bag of frozen dumplings.
One of my favorite dishes when I come home isn’t made by either of my parents. Instead, it emerges from the freezer in a Ziploc bag coated in a thin layer of fog and frost. Inside are bánh nậm—flat rice dumplings with a shape reminiscent of a tamal. Bánh nậm is associated with Central Vietnam, where my dad’s side of the family is from. But the dumplings that end up in my stomach are made here, in the U.S., by Cô, or “aunties,” as I refer to them in English. The term brings to mind the kind of tough-love, single-minded efficiency I associate with Vietnamese women of a certain generation.
"That I can simply have these women in my life is remarkable to me."
Embedded into the dumpling batter is a thin top layer of ground pork, shrimp, and scallion. Each dumpling is individually wrapped in banana leaves and is only unwrapped after the dumpling has been steamed and is ready to eat, often for breakfast or as a snack. To enjoy, I unfold the banana leaves, slip a part of the dumpling onto a spoon, and dip it in chile pepper fish sauce. The texture is somewhere between mashed potatoes and mochi, and the flavor is spicy, loaded with umami, and delicious.
The aunties, like my parents, came to the U.S. as refugees and immigrants after the war in Vietnam. In some ways, the reasons for our being associated with each other are obvious. Before I was even born, bonds between my parents and their friends emerged from war and relocation, cobbled together to alleviate their trauma and loneliness; I merely inherited these relationships. That I can simply have these women in my life is remarkable to me. We are not really related, these aunties and me, and we are not particularly close. Yet, I have always known their presence in my life, an assured and fierce force I often draw on without thinking.
These aunties have somehow heard that their friends have a daughter who likes bánh nậm. Whenever one of them is making a batch, they’ll make extras to give to my mom and dad to pass on to me. My parents will then store them in the freezer where the dumplings await my return. It doesn’t matter if I’m in college coming home every few weeks, or living a thousand miles away, only home for the holidays—the dumplings will be there.
Earlier this year, returning to my cold Midwest apartment after spending the holidays in New England, I dropped bánh nậm into a colander and set it over a pot of boiling water—my own makeshift steamer. I found myself grateful to have a meal I didn’t need to cook myself after flying, and I considered the significance behind the gesture: I do not regularly talk to these aunties, and there is one I have never even met. Yet, here is a full meal of bánh nậm.
I’m touched by the idea that someone would prepare me a dish in the same place they cook meals for their own families. Not just once or twice, but with enough regularity that I cannot remember the last time I came home after being away without eating bánh nậm. When I see an auntie at the occasional get-together, I’ll thank them for the dumplings, and they’ll give a satisfied laugh and offer no further explanation than, “I know you like them.” For them, that is reason enough to continue making me one of my favorite dishes.
At some point I might have thought their generosity was fueled by a fond bemusement. The dish itself has not been popular enough to make it mainstream here in America, and even in my own family, bánh nậm is not heavily sought after. It’s an elegant but subtle traditional food, not exactly something the older generation expects someone born and raised in the States like me to enjoy. Now that I’m a little older, I see the gestures I once took for granted are really a function of something timeless and vital: community. Through community, we care and are cared for. In diasporic communities, care is often the universal love language. It might look like helping an elder navigate health insurance, or talking a first-time parent through their infant’s fever, or fixing someone’s leaky faucet—all things I’ve witnessed my parents doing for others. Care might also look like cooking.
"I think of how culture is moved in and out of space and time, and how we can find it in something as unassuming as a bag of frozen dumplings."
The power of food lies not only in its practicality, but also in its ability to transcend verbal language—to feed us not just literally, but also culturally, socially, and even spiritually. To have a large gathering around food is symbolic of filling ourselves up not just with the food itself, but with the company of other people. On the altar of our ancestors, real food is put up as an offering. (Apparently, even in death, the ancestors could use some crispy roast pork belly and sticky rice.) Food is a means through which we honor the past and pray for the future.
And at home is where I eat the food I am too intimidated to cook myself: bún bò Huế—a spicy noodle soup that has spent hours soaking up meaty flavors and lemongrass, simmering in an industrial-sized stock pot large enough to feed twenty people, but laddled out to our family of five. Or mì Quảng, with its symphony of textures—soft meat sitting alongside crunchy sesame crackers and vegetables, all on a bed of turmeric rice noodles in savory broth. Home is also where I enjoy bánh nậm, a dish that arrives from my aunties just because, the dumplings' arrival not fixed to any schedule or sense of obligation. When I unfold the banana leaves around bánh nậm, I can’t help but remember that it took time and hands to wrap it in the first place—and that’s after mincing the meat, chopping the green onion, and mixing the batter. I think of how culture is moved in and out of space and time, and how we can find it in something as unassuming as a bag of frozen dumplings. I’m struck by the soft and surprising ways we have found to preserve and hand down the tradition of thoughtful preparation, from one generation to the next.
It has been decades since the war in Vietnam, but sometimes, when I feel lost, overwhelmed, or lonely—feelings I know my family must have felt tenfold when they first arrived in the U.S.—I remind myself that I did not only inherit their trauma and loneliness; I also inherited love and resilience. Whether it’s having my family to fall back on, or my aunties’ bánh nậm to return to, I know there will always be more for me at home. When I eat the dumplings, I think of these sturdy women: laughing in a lawn chair at a family cookout, gossiping loudly in the kitchen over the sound of running water and intermittent food processors, or pinching my arm as I walk by, confirming with satisfaction the results of what their hands have made.