Leche flan doesn’t particularly stand out on a table of desserts. The baked custard is an inch high at most, and unassuming shades of pale yellow and brown. At family parties, it didn’t hold a candle in the looks department compared to showy Goldilocks cakes or vibrant ube ice cream. However, it is the first dessert to disappear, hotly contested in the ancient Filipino tradition of taking home days of leftovers after a gathering.
Rich and velvety, leche flan is the Philippines’ answer to Spanish flan. It’s a dish for celebrations—birthday parties, graduations, anniversaries—given the call for a hefty dozen egg yolks. Condensed and evaporated milk make the custard extra creamy and thick, and are much easier to keep good in steamy Filipino weather.
I can’t think of leche flan without thinking of the Salvador women, especially my lola (grandma), Nelia. Her food figures prominently in my childhood: tortang tilong with eggplant from her garden, bowls of salty-sweet chicken adobo, impossibly crispy lumpia that took a production line of relatives to prep, assemble, and fry. But it’s her leche flan, surrounded by a river of caramel sauce, that I remember most.
My lola brought her leche flan recipe with her when she immigrated from Manila to Brooklyn in 1971. She came alone to work as a nurse, her husband and children following behind a year later. I think of the courage it must have taken to come to an unfamiliar country by herself. Brooklyn was worlds away from her former life: bone-chilling winters, crammed apartments, people who resented her community’s presence but happily used their labor. Only decades later did she reveal that she cried almost every day from sheer loneliness.
In spite of their hardships, Lola and Lolo carved out a new life in the States. They worked tireless, long hours at their jobs, she as a nurse and he as an accountant. Though they cultivated a circle of friends in the Filipino community and raised four children, I don’t think America ever felt like home to them in the same way the Philippines did.
My grandparents came for a chance to give their children better prospects and worked hard to achieve that. Survival was primary. I don’t think the luxury of feeling “at home” was something that ever crossed their minds.
Lola’s leche flan recipe calls for 12 egg yolks, a true extravagance. My mom remembers that Lola could make it with just four or six eggs in lean times.
At fiestas, leche flan was a perfect window back into their old life. Despite their circumstances, Lola always set her table with largesse. Relatives mentioned how she could stretch a single egg across her behemoth of a wok, so everyone would get a piece.
When my paternal grandfather passed away, I was surprised to see Lola join us on the flight to Florida. She barely knew my grandma and didn’t speak great English. Lola, however, made short work of little barriers like that. She cooked Western food that was unfamiliar to her and tidied their condo until spotless. Once I saw her and my other grandma sitting in silence next to each other. They didn’t talk and I don’t think they needed to. Compassion is quiet.
My mother, Clariza, like many first generation daughters, worked hard in school growing up, went to a good college, and then moved back in with her parents. She broke the mold when she announced she was moving to Los Angeles. The family was aghast. Lolo (briefly) disowned her. But Lola quietly packed a bag and flew across the country to help my mother find a place.
Fresh out of nursing school, my mom was nervous when introduced to my dad, one of her first patients at UCLA. They both distinctly remember her tangling him up in a mess of IV tubing. A few years after getting married, they moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to raise my twin brother and me. Chapel Hill is a liberal spot in a decidedly conservative state, but the South was wildly different from what my mother knew.
Southern suburbia is a peculiar beast. It’s a world of often difficult-to-navigate social politics, invisible to the naked eye, and deceptively insular communities. Years can pass before you break in. Eventually, she learned the intricacies of the PTA, summer camps, cotillion (a blessedly short run-in, thank god), club soccer, the local church, and what it actually means when someone says “Bless your heart.”
Most of all, Mom made leche flan. She baked it for new neighbors, for work, for potlucks, for class projects, and after school events. Today I believe my mother made leche flan as an introduction to who she was. At potlucks, it was an unfamiliar but welcome addition to the dessert table. Several co-workers specifically requested leche flan every year for the Christmas party. Even finicky elementary school kids liked its simplicity and gentle richness.
My mother’s leche flan, like her, is quiet and unobtrusive at first. She’s made of quiet steel. She’s told me about interactions where patients pointedly stated they did not want “her kind” taking care of them or the time a receptionist at a nannying agency told her “We’re not hiring” when she came to find a babysitter.
“Why didn’t you yell at them, mom?” I demanded. “Why didn’t you make a scene and storm out?”
My brother and I look ambiguous enough to pass as white, which means we don’t necessarily look Filipino. Growing up, people would say to us: “I thought you were mixed with something but didn’t know what.” (This always felt like a more appropriate comment for show dogs, but okay.) My ability to pass for white also means that my life has smoother edges where it was jagged for my mother and her family. In the Philippines, an entire skin whitening industry exists because of a post-colonial legacy that positioned whiteness as the beauty standard. Filipina women who look mestiza, mixed, are celebrated in a way that darker-complexioned, curly-haired Filipina women are not.
Growing up, I picked leche flan over other desserts because 1) it is ridiculously delicious and 2) I wanted to show that even if I didn’t look quite like my mom’s family, I was a part of them. I started cooking Filipino food as a way to connect with my family’s culture. Adobo? Check. Sinigang? No problem. Leche flan, on the other hand, evaded my efforts. It curdled, it bubbled, it emerged with a tire-like texture. I became quietly transfixed by the idea that producing the perfect flan would give me, after all these years, some sort of credit.
When I went to college, I joined a program where I split four years between Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Milan. My cohort was a diverse mix of students from all around the world, all of whom seemed to have a tight grasp on what they were—Italian, Taiwanese, Norwegian, Indian. In Los Angeles, I joined a Filipino student group. The club members could not have been more welcoming, but I couldn’t shake my internal conviction that I was taking up space I didn’t earn.
How much of a claim to my heritage do I have? In identifying as Filipino-American without fully looking the part or speaking Tagalog, am I just unfairly taking the good without the harsh realities most face? When does 50 percent round up? Many people think that it’s a product of our “snowflake generation” to obsess over identity instead of actual problems.
But as Bo Ren so eloquently said, I’m endlessly grateful for my mother and grandmothers’ struggles for survival and acceptance, all so I could be tasked with the luxury of self-actualization.
One day, I finally turned out a beautiful leche flan. It was soft and perfect and didn’t curdle. My roommates loved it, yet my official Filipino badge never arrived. In fact, nothing else really changed for me.
“I did it,” I told my mom over the phone. “It turns out I just had to bake it in a water bath.”
“That’s great, honey!” she said. “But didn’t I tell you that from the beginning?”
I looked back at my notes from when she told me the recipe. “No … Mom, I wasted so many eggs.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I told you!” she laughed. “You know, I messed up my first two because your lola didn’t say to only use egg yolks instead of whole eggs. Maybe it’s a tradition for the Salvador women to keep their recipes a secret. Maybe it’s a Filipino thing.”
Food is absolutely central to Filipino culture. One of the most common Tagalog greetings is “Kumain ka na ba?” Have you eaten yet? There’s no conceiving of a gathering of people that doesn’t revolve around food. People care passionately about what they eat, what they think you should eat and, above all, the opportunity to feed others.
The fact that I let a dessert become the crux of an identity crisis might make me more Filipino than anything else. I don’t have many of the answers to my questions about identity. Expecting a leche flan to do that was foolish. I may not have gotten an official badge, but I did connect with an integral part of Filipino culture.
To care so much about food, and to want to share it with others? It’s a start.
• 12 egg yolks
• 1 can evaporated milk, especially Carnation brand
• 1 can condensed milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3/4 cup granulated sugar
• 2 tablespoons water
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