Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir

by Eddie Huang


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Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

“Long before I met him, I was a fan of his writing, and his merciless wit. He’s bigger than food.”—Anthony Bourdain

Eddie Huang is the thirty-year-old proprietor of Baohaus—the hot East Village hangout where foodies, stoners, and students come to stuff their faces with delicious Taiwanese street food late into the night—and one of the food world’s brightest and most controversial young stars. But before he created the perfect home for himself in a small patch of downtown New York, Eddie wandered the American wilderness looking for a place to call his own.  

Eddie grew up in theme-park America, on a could-be-anywhere cul-de-sac in suburban Orlando, raised by a wild family of FOB (“fresh off the boat”) hustlers and hysterics from Taiwan. While his father improbably launched a series of successful seafood and steak restaurants, Eddie burned his way through American culture, defying every “model minority” stereotype along the way. He obsessed over football, fought the All-American boys who called him a chink, partied like a gremlin, sold drugs with his crew, and idolized Tupac. His anchor through it all was food—from making Southern ribs (and scoring drugs) with the Haitian cooks in his dad’s restaurant to preparing traditional meals in his mother’s kitchen to haunting the midnight markets of Taipei when he was shipped off to the homeland. After misadventures as an unlikely lawyer, street fashion renegade, and stand-up comic, Eddie finally threw everything he loved—past and present, family and food—into his own restaurant, bringing together a legacy stretching back to China and the shards of global culture he’d melded into his own identity.

Funny, raw, and moving, and told in an irrepressibly alive and original voice, Fresh Off the Boat recasts the immigrant’s story for the twenty-first century—it’s a story of food, family, and the forging of a new notion of what it means to be American.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679644880
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/29/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Eddie Huang is the proprietor of Baohaus. He hosts Munchies for VICE TV, hosted Cheap Bites for the Cooking Channel, and co-hosted episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover. He’s written for, The New York Observer, Grantland, and his own popular blog, Fresh Off the Boat. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


Meet the Parents

“The soup dumplings are off today!” Grandpa said.

“Should we tell the waiter? We should send these back.”

“No, no, no, no, no, don’t lose face over soup dumplings. Just eat them.”

My mom always wanted to send food back. Everything on the side, some things hot, some things cold, no MSG, less oil, more chilis, oh, and some vinegar please. Black vinegar with green chilis if you have it, if not, red vinegar with ginger, and if you don’t have that, then just white vinegar by itself and a can of Coke, not diet because diet causes cancer.

Microwaves cause cancer, too, so she buys a Foreman grill and wears a SARS mask because “oil fumes can ruin lungs,” says the woman who smokes Capri cigarettes and drives an SUV wearing a visor. That’s my mom.

I couldn’t eat with my mom; she drove me crazy. But she never bothered my grandfather. He was always above the trees. Like 3 Stacks said, “What’s cooler than cool? Ice cold.” That was Grandpa: a six-foot-tall, long faced, droopy-eyed Chinaman who subsisted on a cocktail of KFC, boiled peanuts, and cigarettes. Thinking back on it, my grandfather created the ultimate recipe for pancreatic cancer. At the time we had that lunch, he’d been battling it for a while, but we tried not to talk about it. That day, we just ate soup dumplings.

“It’s the meat, did they not put enough ginger? Mei you xiang wei dao.”

“Eh, there’s ginger, it’s just heavy-handed. Who cares, just eat them! The rest of the food is on the way.”

Xiang wei is the character a good dish has when it’s robust, flavorful, and balanced but still maintains a certain light quality. That flavor comes, lingers on your tongue, stays long enough to make you crave it, but just when you think you have it figured out, it’s gone. Timing is everything. Soup dumplings, sitcoms, one-night stands—good ones leave you wanting more.

The perfect soup dumpling has nineteen folds. Taipei’s Din Tai Fung restaurant figured this out in the mid-eighties. While Americans had Pyrex visions, Taiwan was focused on soup dumplings. My grandparents on my father’s side lived right on Yong Kang Jie, where Din Tai Fung was founded. To this day, it is the single most famous restaurant in Taipei, the crown jewel of the pound-for-pound greatest eating island in the world. Din Tai Fung started off as an oil retailer, but business took a dive in the early eighties and they did what any Taiwanese-Chinese person does when they need to get buckets. You break out the family recipe and go hammer. Din Tai Fung was like the Genco Olive Oil of Taipei. Undefeated.

The dough is where Din Tai Fung stays the hood champ. It’s just strong enough to hold the soup once the gelatin melts, but if you pick it up by the knob and look closely at the skin, it’s almost translucent. They create a light, airy texture for the skin that no one else has been able to duplicate. I remember going back to Din Tai Fung when I was twenty-seven and saying to myself, They’re off! It’s just not as satisfying as I remember it to be! But two hours later, walking around Taipei, all I could think about was their fucking soup dumplings. Across the street from Din Tai Fung was another restaurant that served soup dumplings and made a business of catching the spillover when people didn’t want to wait an hour for a table. They were really close to the real deal. Like the first year Reebok had AI and you thought that maybe, just maybe, the Questions with the honeycomb would outsell Jordans. A false alarm.

Grandpa Huang put on for Yong Kang Jie and never cheated on the original. On the other hand, Grandpa Chiao, my mother’s father, had money on his mind and really didn’t have time for things like soup dumplings. He was the type of guy who would go across the street without thinking twice. He would be fully aware Din Tai Fung was better, but he was a businessman. He had things to do and never lost sight of them. Everything was calculated with my grandfather. On his desk, there was always this gold-plated abacus. Whenever something needed to be calculated, the other employees would use calculators, but Grandpa beat them to the punch every time. With his fingers on the abacus, he looked as slick as a three-card monte hustler. I loved hearing the sound: tat, tat, tat, rap, tat, tat, tat. After tapping the beads, he’d always reset them all with one downward stroke, whap, and out came the answer. He’d much rather save an hour, eat some perfectly fine soup dumplings, and go on his way.

Mom had other plans. She was my grandpa’s youngest and loudest child. Mom claims she was his favorite, and I can’t say I don’t believe her. Grandpa loved her because she was entertaining and full of energy. As a kid, she took the Taiwanese national academic exam and got into all the best schools in Taipei. After she came to America as a seventeen-year-old, she managed to graduate as the salutatorian of her high school, even though she barely spoke English. On top of that, she’s still the best cook in the family. My cousins love talking about things they don’t know about and everyone claims their parents are the best, but even the aunts admit my mom goes hard in the paint.

That day, my uncle Joe from my dad’s side was with us at Yi Ping Xiao Guan. I think he actually discovered the spot, because it was in Maryland, where he lived. Earlier that day, Grandpa had asked me where I wanted to go for my sixth birthday. He figured I’d say Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald’s, but Momma didn’t raise no fool. Chuck E. Cheese was for mouth breathers and kids with Velcro shoes. “I want to go where they have the best soup dumplings!”

“Where’s that?”

“Even Uncle Joe knows! Yi Ping Xiao Guan.”

I really liked Uncle Joe. He built three of the major bridges in D.C. and wore these big, thick black-rimmed glasses. I was into glasses, especially goggles, because Kareem wore them and he had the ill sky hook.

After we ate, I was kinda pissed with the shitty soup dumplings. It was my birthday! Yi Ping Xiao Guan, you can’t come harder than this for the kid? Chuck E. Cheese can serve shitty food ’cause you get to smash moles and play Skee-Ball after lunch. But all you have are soup dumplings! How could you fuck this up? Yi Ping Xiao Guan was like Adam Morrison: your job is to slap Kobe’s ass when the Lakers call time out. If you can’t do that, shoot yourself. As I sat there, pissed off, I saw a waiter pouring off-brand soy sauce into the Wanjashan Soy Sauce bottles. Corner cutting, bootleg, off-brand-soy-pouring Chinamen!

“Mom! Mom!”

“Eddie, stop it, I’m talking to Grandpa. Talk to Uncle Joe!”

If someone was talking to Grandpa, you couldn’t interrupt, but apples don’t fall far from the tree. My mom was the youngest and never followed rules in the family. She enforced them on everyone else, but she never followed them herself.

“MOOOMMM! Listen!”

“Huang Xiao Wen!”

That was the signal. Black people use the government name when shit hits the fan, and my family would bust out the Chinese. It hurt my ears to hear the Chinese name. Not only did it seem louder and extra crunchy, but it usually meant you were about to get smacked the fuck up. Luckily, Uncle Joe was a nice guy who actually thought it was possible that a child might have something important to say.

“Uncle Joe, I know why the soup dumplings are bad.”

“Really? Tell me!”

“Look over there: the waiter is putting the cheap soy sauce in the bottles. They must be using it in the dumplings, too.”

“Genius! Genius! Aya, Rei Hua, Rei Hua, zhu ge Xiao Wen tai cong ming le!”

Rei Hua was my mother’s Chinese name, so Uncle Joe got her attention when he used it.

“Eddie figured it out. They’re using that cheap heavy soy sauce now. Look over there, he’s putting it in all the bottles!”

“Oh my God! Too smart, too smart, I told you, this one is so smart!”

“Whatever, Mom, you never listen!”

“Shhh, shhh, shhh, don’t ruin it for yourself. You did a good thing, just eat your food now.”

I think my mom is manic, but Chinese people don’t believe in psychologists. We just drink more tea when things go bad. Sometimes I agree; I think we’re all overdiagnosed. Maybe that’s just how we are, and people should leave us alone. My mom was entertaining! If you met my family, you’d prescribe Xanax for all of them, but then what? We’d be boring.

At any moment, I was around my younger brother, Emery, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, or my parents. We ate together, went shopping together, and worked together. Sometimes five of them, sometimes twelve of them; on weekends, it was anyone’s guess. We’d pick an aunt’s house and you’d see a line of Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Toyotas form down the street.

Our family counted all the aunts and uncles from both sides as one team, so even if you were the oldest in your family, you might be second or third in the larger bracket. Got it? Good. So, #1 Aunt lived in Pittsburgh, where that side of the family had a furniture store. She would come down every once in a while with her kids and they were always friendly. We loved that side of the family because we saw them only three or four times a year. #2 Aunt was my mother’s oldest sister and she made the best ti-pang: red cooked pork shoulder. Her husband, Gong Gong, was a really funny guy. He didn’t speak English, so he’d always test my Chinese, check my biceps, shoulders, triceps, and then ask to arm wrestle. Gong Gong was a funny dude, bent over all his nephews, examining them like they were entries in a dog show.

#3 Uncle was my cousin Shupei’s dad. I never spoke to him ’cause there were always fifty or sixty people in the house when he came, since it was a big event. He lived in Pittsburgh, had four kids, and they all traveled together in packs. It was awesome when they visited. Shupei and his cousin Schubert, cool dudes who played ice hockey and poker. They were also huge, the first six-foot-three Chinamen I’d ever seen. As a nine-year-old, I’d tell myself I had a chance at going NBA if I grew as tall as they did. Also, Shupei’s wife was white, which gave me hope that I didn’t have to date someone from Chinese school.

#4 Aunt was my mom’s sister. She was crazy and, without any notice, she would say things like “Look how fat you are!” or “You are really stupid, do you know that?” As a kid, I stayed as far away as possible from her and her brother, Uncle Tai, because they were like Boogie Man and Bride of Boogie Man. As I got older though, #4 Aunt became a lot nicer and my brothers and I finally understood: it wasn’t her. My mom was the one telling #4 Aunt about how me and my brothers were acting up. As a favor to my mom, she took on the role of enforcer. She was the first person in our family to figure out how to make cheesecake. For some reason, she had more interest in American food than the rest of us did. Ironically, she also made the best American Chinese food: fried rice.

Then came #5 Aunt, also called Aunt Beth; she was my cousin Allen’s mom. Then came my cousin Phil’s mom, who never took an American name. Next was my Uncle Tai and lastly was my mom, who everyone called “Xiao A-Yi”—Little Aunt. Phil, Allen, and their moms were my closest family.

Aunt Beth put out a good dinner when the family got together at her house on the weekends. It was balanced. Always two vegetables depending on what was in season—it could be Xiao You Cai or sautéed kong-xin cai (Chinese watercress, literally “hollow heart vegetable”), which is my favorite vegetable. She liked making tomato and eggs, plus some sort of shredded pork stir-fry with either cured tofu or beans, and chicken soup. Aunt Beth was a great host—she served a balanced meal, and let me watch sports before the older people took over the TV to sing karaoke.

I thought my cousin Allen was the coolest dude. He was three years older than me so he knew about everything just before I did. When we went to the mall, he showed me purple Girbaud jeans. He was the first to get a CD player and we always listened to Onyx’s Bacdafucup together. If his mom had to pick him up from detention at school, I went to go get him, too. Sometimes he’d treat me like a burden, but I looked up to him. I was learning.

My other cousin Phillip was my best friend. He was only a year older than me, but he really took on the role of older cousin. He was the kindest person in the family and smart, too. He knew something about everything, but wasn’t afraid of doing dumb shit, either. Our favorite thing to do was to watch WWF together on Saturday mornings at Aunt Beth’s house, get hyped, and try out moves in the pool, where they’d body-slam me, causing me to immediately puke the tomato and eggs I’d just eaten into the water.

We fought a lot, made fun of each other constantly, but it was a good time. It was always chaos in the living room when our whole family came over, so Allen, Phillip, and I would retreat downstairs after dinner and play Tecmo Super Bowl or Mike Tyson’s Punchout. We’d stay in the basement for hours and every once in a while, they’d send me up to get drinks and snacks. I’d go into the dining room, which was only separated from the living room by one step. A false divider. Although everyone else had gone to the living room for karaoke, one person always remained on the dining room level: Grandma. She’d sit there in her wheelchair and make birds out of Play-Doh. I’d come up to get drinks and see her alone, so I’d hang out with her for a minute. All of us would keep her company at one point or another in the night.


A Q&A with Eddie Huang

You're a chef, but your restaurant doesn't show up in this book until pretty late. If you're not writing about your restaurant - the fabulous Baohaus in New York - then what are you writing about?

Food is at the core of the book, but I examine it beyond the plate, almost as a symbol. There's only one recipe in this book and there are no measurements. I want people to understand the power that food has as a gateway drug into culture and history, but, first and foremost, my book tells a story about growing up Taiwanese-Chinese in America. It's a story about unpacking your identity, purging yourself of the things your environment has imposed upon your consciousness, and trying to set yourself free. I refused the American Experience I was sold, remixed it for myself, chopped it up, and sold it back.

One of the powerful aspects of the book is the language you use, which feels completely original. Where does your voice come from?

Language is constantly changing and the biggest disservice you can do to yourself and your reader is to write how you think you're "supposed to" write. My parents didn't really speak English at home, so I had to develop my English voice independently and mostly through pop culture - I grew up speaking Chinese, listening to hip hop, and watching cable television. Learning to trust my own voice was probably the most important thing I ever did. When I was in college, Richard Ford visited during a speaking series and criticized Ha Jin, who had just won the National Book Award, for writing in English because it wasn't his native tongue, implying that Ha Jin should stick to Chinese. I was just a half-assed student at the time, but I stood up and argued with Ford from my seat till they made me sit down. My mother speaks broken English but even with her comic disregard for subject-verb agreement, she throws mad knowledge darts. You should never worry about what others think about the language you use, as long as it's truly your own.

What do you want readers to take away from Fresh Off the Boat?

The simple surface reading of this book is to be yourself by any means possible. That's the basic theme, but I want people to see how implementing a simple concept like that takes a struggle between you and your country, you and your city, you and your reference group, you and your family, you and your race, you and the sub cultures you subscribe to, and on and on. It's about the constant battle between that little voice inside you and the people you love, the legacy you carry, the cultures that make you curious, the country that tells you who you're supposed to be. It's about the complexity of being an individual - about finding love in family, in friends, in food, in music and culture, and a million other surprising places, and figuring out how to bring all that together inside of you. It's about learning to be fearless, but it's also about the cost of those lessons and the literal and psychic violence you encounter when you try to break free.

There are tons of books about the struggle to be an individual, but with each one we reach more and more people who were never spoken to. I was always a weirdo growing up, but I believed that there were weirdos like me, and my writing this book is like Professor X putting on cerebro to find the other mutants.

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Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a first gen American from an Asian (Filipino) family, I can relate to some of the things Mr. Huang wrote about. Granted this book is written in his words, including slang and profanities, it is more acceptable with the younger audience. That aside, you really get a look into his story and where he feels he is in todays American Society. I cannot help but empathize. ENTERTAINING FAST READ. HAD ME LAUGHING, HUNGRY, AND PROUD TO BE ASIAN
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book looks at a lot of the darker things in life in a light hearted manor. I liked it, but it was written so much in slang and obscure references much of it was hard for me to follow. It was a refreshing approach for biography.
Cathyyy More than 1 year ago
Fresh point of view, and very funny. I really enjoyed the candor, audacity, and adventure. I wish this book had existed when I was growing up. It's really empowering to hear a talented and rebellious Asian speak his mind on subject matters that no one has the guts to talk about. This is a great coming of age story on par with Catcher in the Rye, and I think it should be added to high school and college curriculums to offer a more holistic point of view to the American experience. I could identify with Eddie so much all throughout the book. I really tried to savor and reflect on the book because I didn't want it to end!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book.  Had me laughing until I was crying as I relate to some of the stories.  Thank you, Eddie.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hilarious! I can totally understand where Eddie is coming from. Gotta try Baohaus someday.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Honestly, I too do not get the praise for this piece of dung. His voice is fake, it seems to me he is mocking African culture. And he's nothing but a street hood! ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im new my name is cj what happened between you and amy?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im here...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing book! The show does not do it justice or capture how great this really is. Well done!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought he brought something genuine from Taiwan and shared it with Tiger Style and some duck sauce.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not sure about the positive reviews. Horrible story. Just the same thing over and over. Not the least bit funny, unless you find constant street fighting funny. Didn't even bother to finish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a great read, entertaining and refreshing - hope to one day visit baohaus.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Big waste of money! Not funny. Full of profanity. Way too much slang that made no sense. Was so bored and frustrated that I didn't finish the book.
GharrisonTX More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book because of an interview with Eddie Huang about his book over the radio and his story inspired me. However, I was a bit disappointed with the story content. The narrator from the audio book was in fact Eddie Huang. Throughout the book, the "f" word and many other concatenations were used that I could have done without. Although that is Eddie Huang, what you see is what you get, and is not going to sugar coat his life, his culture, believes and most of all his voice. Eddie has made a name for himself through hard work and family values learned through his parents and culture. Overall, I enjoyed the audio book and would rate it as a 7 out of 10 for bad language and tasteless ethics in some parts of his story. Gharrison Houston, Texas
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dog. Wish I had the opportunities you had and Im so not Asian. Spoiled ingrate. Love your moms and pops
Anonymous More than 1 year ago