By the time his first memoir, Fresh Off The Boat, came out in 2013, Eddie Huang was really hitting his stride. His New York restaurant, Baohaus — which serves gua bao, or Taiwanese hamburgers — was doing really well. His TV show, Huang’s World, was taking him all over the world.
But then he fell in love — with a White, all-American woman. And his world turned topsy-turvy.
Huang began to question his American-Chinese identity, to fret over how Chinese he was. To figure it all out, he and his brothers, Evan and Emery, headed to their ancestral homeland, to reconnect with their culture, to eat lots and lots of food — and to cook.
NPR’s Audie Cornish spoke with Huang about these adventures, which he has documented in his new book, Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China.
On why his father’s restaurants had decidedly non-Chinese names like Cattleman’s Steakhouse, Fajita Grill, Corleone’s Italian food and Coco’s Floribbean
My dad was a businessman’s businessman. That’s the difference between us.
I’ve opened Baohaus and I cook food because I’m telling a story about identity. My dad opened restaurants and he cooked food because he wanted to make money. And I don’t think either one is better than the other.
You know, he had to survive, he had three kids and he did what he had to do. And he looked, and he said, Americans don’t respect us, they don’t respect our food. They still don’t pay as much for a sizzling filet mignon at a Cantonese restaurant that’s sliced with black bean sauce and onions as they do a filet mignon that they’ve done nothing to and they just put in a Montague broiler.
On cooking his food for Chinese and Taiwanese diners
I was actually in a boutique pop-up hotel, within a Super 8 Motel, that was owned by this Chengdu businesswoman… and she had also a bar called Hakka Bar upstairs, and she let me cook there.
So, me and my brothers, we brought a bunch of camping stoves, we made red cooked pork, we made some stewed cabbage, we made bitter melon, some seaweed knots.
People lined up, we served them. There [were] Hunan people there, there [were] people from Sichuan there, there [were] people from Taiwan there. It was a very special event, because I don’t feel like all these people had come together before and eaten this kind of food.
I was worried that the people there were so programmed that they only wanted what they knew. But these people were very open-minded. They were even more liberal about their Chinese identity than I was — and I think it was because they were more confident in it.
On the Chinese diners’ comments that his food was neither Chinese nor American
It was something about it I couldn’t even understand. Because in America, we have this idea of authenticity — either you’re authentically Chinese, or you’re not Chinese.
And for a lot of people I know — they’re Jamaican, they’re Puerto Rican, and they go back to their homeland as well. And you know, their aunts and uncles and cousins that didn’t come over to America, they’ve always got jokes about “Oh, look at the way you peel breadfruit, look at the way you eat ox tails, you’re not Jamaican, you’re not Puerto Rican.” So that was always in the back of my head — there’s always that insecurity, like I’m a fraud.
But over time, I realized [these diners] were complimenting me. And also, children of the diaspora — we have a job, we have a duty to take this culture, go to different places and see the different faces that it takes on.
On the Chinese food in China
Every time you go on the street there’s something new. I remember 10 years ago, I went to Taiwan and there was this dish — big intestine wrapped around small intestine — and they have sticky rice inside of an intestine, and they have a sausage inside, and they put tons of toppings. And it’s almost like a Chinese intestine sticky rice hot dog. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten in my life — easily top 10.
I think food is language — just like any other language it has a system, it has a structure, it has references it draws from and it has values.
But sometimes people clunk them together like Legos. … I’m not into fusion. I’m not into a Subway teriyaki sub — that’s not my thing. I get the meatball sub at Subway.
But I like when food comes from an experience. When you go to China, you’ll see that there are new experiences. And as that society changes, so does their food.
On his fears around assimilation
Growing up in America, so many Chinese people call you American. In my case, they called me Black. And I not only didn’t fit in going back to Taiwan or going back to China, but I didn’t even fit in in the Chinese-American schools I’d go to on Sundays. And it was very tough. I was made to feel like, not only was I not American, I was also not Chinese.
This [trip around China] was me going home and really grappling with my own fears, my own insecurities about identity and asking people in the homeland what they thought.
But what I realized was it didn’t matter what American people thought of me, or what Chinese people thought of me. … It’s OK to not fit into any boxes. This trip — going to China — I’ve really learned to accept and love myself and let somebody else love me.