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Chef Eddie Huang On Cultural Identity And 'Intestine Sticky Rice Hot Dog'

May 27, 2016
Originally published on May 27, 2016 7:01 pm

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.

His memoir — a raw, funny and sometimes profane account of growing up as an Asian-American kid reconciling two cultures — was turned into a popular sitcom for ABC.

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.

Interview Highlights

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If the name Eddie Huang is familiar, it's probably because of "Fresh Off The Boat," the best-selling memoir that spawned an ABC sitcom. It's a raw and funny account of growing up the son of Chinese-Taiwanese immigrants.

EDDIE HUANG: Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to bare your soul, stand outside naked and be yourself.

CORNISH: And now Huang is back at it with a new memoir. It's called "Double Cup Love." And this time, he's exploring food. Huang is the head of Baohaus, a popular Taiwanese bun shop in New York City. And we began by talking about his parents' cooking, specifically the restaurants dad ran when Huang was a kid.

In the footnotes in one section, you're talking about restaurants that your father had run. And some of the names were, like, Cattleman's Steakhouse, Fajita Grill, Corleone's Italian Food.

HUANG: Yeah.

CORNISH: And my favorite, Coco's Floribbean, I think.

HUANG: Yeah, Coco's Floribbean Cuisine. I worked there after school.

CORNISH: Everything but Chinese food.

HUANG: Yeah.

CORNISH: So why didn't he make Chinese food, and why do you?

HUANG: My dad was the businessman's businessman. And the difference between us is 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, you know, a sizzling filet mignon at a Cantonese restaurant sliced with black bean sauce and onions as they do a filet mignon that they've done nothing to and just put in a Montague broiler.

CORNISH: So fast forward to today - you're living in a very different time. And at the start of this book, your restaurant, Baohaus in New York City is doing really well, right?

HUANG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's doing well.

CORNISH: And people here in the U.S. love your cooking. And then you essentially decide that you need to go back and cook and serve food in China. And so the first time you actually get to cook, you're at a hotel, right? What happened?

HUANG: Yeah, I was actually in a boutique pop-up hotel within a Super 8 motel that was owned by this Chengdu businesswoman, Hakka Heather (ph). And she had, also, a bar called Hakka Bar upstairs, and she let me cook there. So me and my brothers brought a bunch of, like, camping stoves. We made red cooked pork. We made some stewed cabbage. We made bitter melon, some seaweed knots. And people lined up, we served them. There was Hunan people there. There was people from Szechuan there. There was people from Taiwan there. And it was a very special event because I don't feel like all these people had come together before to eat food like this and ask the questions that we did. And we did it with - what's always with me these days is a Dipset soundtrack.

CORNISH: (Laughter). How nervous were you?

HUANG: I wasn't nervous. I was just curious. I know my food's good. If anything, I was nervous that the people eating there would say something that made me question them and write off China or write off my place here. But I wasn't worried.

CORNISH: That would be your take away - like, you must be wrong (laughter)?

HUANG: Yeah, like, sometimes, you look at, like - sometimes you look at, like, the Amazon readers' reviews of, like, the books and stuff, and it's just, like, this wasn't for you. Like, you're never going to get it. You know, you're very simple, you're very basic, and you're only going to understand inputs into your computer that you have presets for. So I was worried that the people eating 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's because they were more confident in it.

CORNISH: And not only did they like your food, you seemed a little taken aback by the compliments the way that they complimented it, saying that, well, it's not Chinese. It's not American. It's a mix. There was something about that that you couldn't accept.

HUANG: Yeah, well, 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 that are Jamaican or they're Puerto Rican, they go back to their homeland as well. And, you know, their aunts and uncles and cousins that didn't come over to America always got jokes about, oh, look at the way you peel breadfruit. Look at the way you eat oxtails. Like, you're not Jamaican, or you're not Puerto Rican. And so that was always in the back of my head, and there's always that insecurity, like I'm a fraud. But over time, I started to realize they were complimenting me and also that, like, 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 if you let it go and you let it grow alongside your history and identity.

CORNISH: You write that people don't realize coming from abroad that Chinese food in China is constantly changing.

HUANG: Yeah, Chinese food - when you go back, 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 called toa-tng pau sio-tng, and it's big intestine wrapped around small intestine. And they have sticky rice inside of an intestate, and then they have a sausage inside. They put tons of toppings in. It's almost like a Chinese intestine, sticky rice hot dog.

CORNISH: That's a lot of information just there (laughter).

HUANG: It was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten in my life - like, easily top ten. And sometimes in America, we're afraid to play with our food within the same pantry. And what I mean is, I'm not into fusion. I'm not into a Subway teriyaki sub, right?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

HUANG: That's not my thing. I get the meatball sub at Subway. But I think that 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. And so you can bring your experience to it, but sometimes people clunk them together like Legos. But I like when food comes from an experience. And when you go to China, you'll see that there are new experiences. And as that society changes, so does their food.

CORNISH: Whenever someone does a memoir, it is revealing, right (laughter)?

HUANG: Yeah.

CORNISH: And you're putting yourself out there. And you put out there your fears about having a non-Asian child, your fears of feeling like a fraud. Really, it was like you were rethinking your assimilation in a way that was surprising to me, right, in a way that seemed different from the guy who brought me "Fresh Off The Boat" and was, like, really into black and hip-hop culture. Did you find yourself rethinking how you thought about these things over the years?

HUANG: 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, and I was always made to feel like not only was I not American, I was also not Chinese. And this 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 started to realize is it doesn't matter what Americans thought of me or Chinese people thought of me. It just matters what you think. It's OK to not fit into any boxes or silos. And as much as I've fought against it, as much as I've railed against it, I realized I was the one that felt the most alien because I didn't fit into them. Part of me was always like, damn, I'm weird. I'm never going to fit in. But this trip, going to China, I really learned to accept and love myself and let somebody else love me. And it was a huge part of my life.

CORNISH: Eddie Huang. His new memoir is called "Double Cup Love." It's out on Tuesday. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HUANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.