Four Desserts is a collection of vignettes written by Freya Abbas and Vicky Xie that represent the Canadian cultural mosaic. Each piece is preceded by a short poetic description of the food for those who may be unfamiliar with it. The vignettes feature characters from different backgrounds and walks of life, many of whom face personal challenges related to sociopolitical issues in Canada. The foods chosen are diverse; the only element they have in common is that they are all desserts. Desserts are something that people from all cultures enjoy. They are an unnecessary meal but eaten anyway because they bring happiness. No matter where a person comes from, their one goal in life will always be to seek out happiness. In this respect, we have a lot more in common with others than we may think.
Hong Kong Egg Tarts
(Image Source: Food Network)
The sun caught in a delicate cradle of pastry. Warm and golden-smooth, beautiful in its simplicity—no, purity. A sun made of fire may have sunspots marring its surface, but this sun is flawless, complete. Sweet and smooth inside and out, counterbalanced only by the plain pastry shell that limns its edges and supports its base. All the better to leave that sun-spun beauty on display for the world.
Yang may be more stunning than yin, but do not mistake one for being superior to the other; opposite and equal, the custard collapses without support, and the shell is cold without the sun.
Even at birth, her mother told them, her brother was a force of nature. First out the womb, first to breathe his first breath and wail—and then, incredibly, characteristically, to laugh. She came second, right on his heels, but her brother’s laugh had always been a spellbinding thing.
She came second. Or was it last?
Qiuyan as a child was bright, bouncing, boisterous. He blazed a trail through school and sports, seemed to know and love everyone. Parents, relatives, teachers, and strangers cooed and fussed over him—the charming twin, the precocious twin, the brilliant twin. Won’t you come over for hotpot sometime? Tutor my daughter sometime? Join the debate team sometime? Oh—and Qiyue, how are you doing today?
He was the warm morning sun before the noonday heat, the fire without the smoke, the flame without the scald. There existed no shadows in his midst; except the ones Qiyue hid behind her, thick and clouded.
Qiyue knew herself to be his equal. She knew it, but did not feel it. If her brother had been class representative, it was only because she had helped him draft his speeches. If her brother was top student in mathematics, chemistry, physics, she was top student in Chinese, fine arts, history. If her brother preferred the tea shop, the night market, the badminton courts, she simply preferred the library, the Zen gardens, the quiet of her own bedroom.
But classmates saw her and exclaimed, “Ah, you’re Qiuyan’s twin!” Judges weighed their equal scores and then weighed their unequal comportments, and awarded her second place. Life saw her, judged the weave of her nature as less-than, and marked her thus forevermore.
Still she loved her brother like she loved the sun and light and life, and still they were inseparable. She tempered his wild passion, and he buoyed her darkest moods. Qiuyan was the flame; Qiyue was the matchstick. They were young and strong, and together they were young and unstoppable.
Then, one fateful day, their parents took them aside and told them they only had enough money to send one of them to a good, foreign university.
Twins are so similar, are they not? Two flowers from one stem. But one flower will inevitably be brighter, fuller, better than the other one. And the luxury of choice and comparison snips two into one.
Qiyue was aghast. Qiuyan was aghast. Qiyue stood up, left, shut herself in her room, and cried. Qiuyan kept arguing outside, in vain, then hours later came to her room and collapsed down beside her, for once at a loss for words.
The following autumn he was gone halfway across the world and Qiyue felt the soul-swallowing emptiness of a singularity split.
What is a song without its notes? What good is a single chopstick? What is an egg tart without both the filling and pastry? University swept her up in its tidal forces, and she could only sink, gasp for breath, drown, a ship adrift under a lightless sky. In classes she would turn to the right to whisper a joke and find herself facing empty air. Her brother’s texts became increasingly sporadic, unpredictable, worrisome, flickers of evasive conversations and hints of new unsavory crowds.
Qiuyan is burning out, and Qiyue is already cold to the bone. Her head in her hand, she glances out her window. The night sky is a starless, polluted thing. The moon remains, though, and the light it reflects from the opposite side of the world is almost half a comfort.
Kit Kat Chocolate Bar
(Image Source: Open Food Facts)
The paragon of chocolate candies. The perfect mix of cocoa and crunch. The quintessential Halloween candy, the time-immemorial childhood snack, the unparalleled satisfaction of a crisp snap. Universally loved, universally sold, with flavours from soy sauce to raspberry crème to ginger ale. But the classic flavour will always be a sweet and steady milk chocolate.
“Flavours stick to people like burrs to a shirt. At least for those with a brain that thinks like mine does. Which is to say, an intellectual brain belonging to a chocolate connoisseur.”
“All you eat are Kit Kats.”
“Yes, that’s what I said, wasn’t it? Now, take Henry, for example. He’s a Dark Chocolate Kit Kat, plain and simple.”
“If it really was plain and simple, you could’ve just said ‘dark chocolate.’”
“See, he’s always either shut in his room on Zoom calls or power-walking to work in a suit and tie. Henry is mildly caustic but unfailingly polite, and surprisingly receptive to the romcoms I make him watch. Also, I think he sometimes secretly does my dishes for me when I forget. Always denies it though. Classic Dark Chocolate Kit Kat—bitter but actually quite creamy-sweet once you bite through to the inside.”
“Maybe don’t talk about biting your roommate, please.”
“Addy is a Sakura Kit Kat. Pink, cutesy, sweet, but has a kind of a weird floral taste… like eating grass… better in small doses.”
“I should tell Adeline you said that.”
“Yeah, also tell her I object to her dragging you off to the M-word so often.”
“I’ll drag you to the mall next time.”
“And haul fifty-seven bags for you? I’d rather take another one of Cappetta’s classes. Who, by the way, is European Cheese flavoured. Sophisticated at first glance but smells terrible and tastes like punishment and all-nighters.”
“That’s… fair, actually. How about Socrates?”
“Socrates, my hemlock homie? Full-size Lemon Crisp. Reading about him hurts my brain but I just keep going back. Socrates, your dog? Miniature size Lemon Crisp. His yips are the worst but he’s admittedly adorable.”
“How about me?”
“Easy. Peach Parfait, because you’re peachy perfect and it’s objectively the best flavour that exists. Like you.”
“Aw, you smooth talker. How about you? What flavour are you, Doctor Kit Kat?”
“Hey, you tell me. You’re half an expert on this, too.”
“Hmm… I think you’re original milk chocolate. Perfect, sweet, smooth. Maybe a little bit too excited by bad puns.”
“You only think it’s a bad pun because you hate nicknames,” Christopher huffed.
“But I still love Kit Kat,” Katherine reminded him, smiling, and snuggled closer.
Maple Wild Rice Pudding
(Image Source: Readers Digest Canada)
The wild rice tastes exactly like the wetlands where it grows. Like something aquatic life feeds on. It smells like the picturesque lake you went to once that made you dream of living off the land. The maple syrup is a symbol of Canada but you think it tastes far too sweet to represent a settler state.
The crowd at Nathan Phillips Square waved around protest signs saying things like, “Burn the patriarchy, not coal!” But the person I intended to talk to had a simpler sign, straight to the point, reading, “Defund Line 3.”
“You are the Indigenous activist Rainy Frazer, right? I’m a reporter,” I explained as I approached her.
“A reporter! Are you with the Toronto Star?” she asked.
“No, an independent publication for environmental news. My name is Vanessa Clarke. Do you mind talking to me about Line 3? If you have the time, of course.”
“Yeah, I wanted to talk to some media people, because Enbridge is making it sound like they’re just repairing the old pipeline, but they’re actually building a new one. It’s unbelievably dishonest. Make sure you make that clear in your article, okay? Not many people are aware of that.” Outrage and disgust was clear in her voice.
She suggested that we talk at length somewhere more comfortable, and I agreed.
We started walking and she led me to a tiny restaurant in the vibrant neighborhood of Kensington market. It was known as one of the most multicultural spots in Toronto. I’d tried Brazilian, German and Persian cuisine there but I suddenly realized I’d never tried the food of the first peoples of this land. Rainy and I walked into the Pow Wow Cafe, where beadwork was displayed on the walls.
“I’m a vegan,” I told her.
“Great. You will like the maple wild rice pudding. I’ll treat myself to some blueberry bannock.”
She was right; the pudding was delicious. As I ate, Rainy told me that the Line 3 pipeline would endanger wild rice beds that are sacred to her people, the Anishinaabe. It would produce enough CO2 in one year to be equivalent to the emissions of 16-18 million cars.
As I savoured the pudding, I started to think about how different Toronto would have looked two hundred years ago. Endless fields of corn, beans and squash. Pawpaw trees. Wild rice beds. I wondered how much we could do for our environmental impact if we tried to learn from the ways that Indigenous peoples sustainably grow food. And then perhaps more Canadians would also be aware of the culinary traditions of Indigenous peoples.
“What you see out there, college students holding up signs? That’s nothing. I’ve been arrested before. I even locked myself up in a section of the pipe in the winter,” said Rainy.
Her story pushed me into a bout of self-reflection. I was trying to reduce my footprint by being a vegan, but people like her were risking their lives for the land and water. A tiny population of people whose way of life and culture depended on the land were fighting to protect it, and they may be one of the only barriers protecting us all from the destruction of the planet.
(Image Source: Healthy Nibbles)
Smooth and creamy, no two glasses taste quite the same, some mangoes being sweet, some sour. Your grandfather taught you what to call the different varieties of mangoes. And now that glass of mango lassi in front of you is the only thing left to remind you of the rich traditions of your homeland.
I sat on a chair on the veranda, watching the heavy monsoon rain fall rhythmically on the mango trees in our garden. My skin was swollen with mosquito bites and I sweated profusely. I felt like I was in a jungle. I would not miss India’s humid weather when I left.
My mother came to sit on the chair next to me. She brought something with her. It was a jewelry box. She opened it to reveal a pair of long, golden jhumka earrings.
“Varsha, you are a bright student and you know I am proud to have you as my daughter. But it wouldn’t hurt you to be a little more feminine,” she said. I wore a t-shirt and jeans. My hair was cut too short for her taste.
“Who’s going to marry you if-”
I was delighted to see the mail carrier as he interrupted my mom’s sentence by waving to us excitedly. My heart pounded in my chest as I saw the package he held and noticed it was from Canada. It contained my acceptance letter to the University of Toronto’s engineering program.
My mom cried tears of joy that day and hugged me. My father bought a hundred boxes of laddu, one of his favourite desserts, to be distributed around the neighborhood in celebration.
A few months later, I was looking up at an elegant dancer on a stage. She wore long, drooping jhumka earrings just like the ones my mother wanted me to wear. She was the most graceful, elegant, traditional-looking Indian woman I’d ever seen. Except I was in Canada.
When my flight first landed there, I’d decided that not only was I going to be the best student, I was going to assimilate myself into western culture. That meant going to clubs wearing clothes my mother wouldn’t approve of. Well, I’d certainly made my way into a club by invitation of my new friend, Zara. But the performer on stage, the audience and the atmosphere of the place was Indian. I was disappointed. It made me feel like I had no chance of reinventing myself, like I couldn’t escape my roots no matter how hard I tried.
I wore western clothes and ordered a coke. I don’t even like coke. It made me feel an unpleasant tingling sensation in my nose when I drank it. Zara was born in Canada and could not pronounce Hindi words properly because she’d grown up speaking English. And yet she sat next to me wearing a salwar kameez and ordering a mango lassi to drink, of all things.
I focused on the dancer. She moved as gracefully as a cobra to a snake charmer’s song. Her hips swayed while her anklets and bracelets rattled. Her lehenga was red and gold against her brown skin. When the spotlight focused on her, I could tell she had an enviable, voluptuous figure. Her long, black hair fell like a curtain behind her and she had a vermilion bindi on her forehead. I was completely mesmerized by what I was looking at. Her dance soon came to an end, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. It was like her beauty and femininity spoke to me and mocked me. It entrenched itself deep into my memory.
Many more performers took to the stage. Diaspora slam poets droned on about being stereotyped by white people. Some people sang Bollywood songs. But none of them held a candle to the dancer.
When it was all over, Zara’s glass of mango lassi stood empty before me. And I had barely touched my coke.
“So what was your favourite performance, Varsha?” asked Zara.
“The dancer!” I exclaimed, louder than I had intended. “What was her name?” I was eager to know.
“Oh you mean Ishaan? They’re over there,” Zara gestured behind me.
I was confused, because Ishaan is a man’s name. I turned around and saw someone who looked just like a regular Indian guy. Where was the devastatingly gorgeous woman I’d seen earlier?
“Wait, so it was a disguise? The dancer was a man?” I nearly shouted.
“I’m not a man or a woman,” said Ishaan. They had overheard me.
“I’m so sorry, Ishaan,” Zara apologized on my behalf. “Varsha is- she’s new. She’s an international student. She might not understand the whole concept of-”
“No, I get it. You’re beyond the gender binary. My apologies for assuming what you were,” I said.
I don’t know how Ishaan felt about my clumsy mistake. But they seemed like they were busy and had something to do, so they just smiled and left.
My mother always raised me with the pressure of being feminine. And I knew that boys in India are pressured to be masculine. It was supposed to be the traditional way of things. But Zara and Ishaan did not care about traditional gender roles. There was a world of difference between how we were raised.
And yet, looking at all the effort they put into contributing to that space, that little South Asian culture club in the middle of Toronto, could anyone have dared to say that they weren’t Indian enough? That they didn’t preserve their culture just because they didn’t agree with limiting gender expression?