Reviewed by Jocelyn Coffin

Quoting the likes of rap artists Cam’ron, Jadakiss, and his own father, Eddie Huang’s first memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, presents gastrodiplomacy with a sharp sense of humor. Most famous for his New York City Taiwanese bun shop, BaoHaus, and hosting Vice TV show, Fresh Off the Boat, Huang is proudly a mix of American popular culture and Taiwanese tradition. As a rising chef in the United States, he has learned a crucial lesson: “I didn’t allow America to sell me in a box with presets and neither should you. Take the things from America that speak to you, that excite you, that inspire you, and be the Americans we all want to know.”

A self-described “Chinese-American kid raised by hip-hop,” Huang’s memoir traces his life in the United States through food anecdotes. From dinners with his Taiwanese family to food with friends, and finally, catching up to his most recent professional experiences, Huang’s determination is the fuel behind his success. Huang has immersed himself in American culture, particularly black culture, equally as much as he hopes that others will immerse themselves in his food. For Huang, “the one place that America allows Chinese people to do their thing is in the kitchen.”[1]

Huang believes that when preparing food, you must serve it right. Vividly describing a Taiwanese restaurant of his childhood, Huang brings out his passion for tradition with a focus on detail. A young Huang knew that a perfect soup dumpling has eighteen folds and that, “Even a six-year-old can tell that using the cheap soy sauce would ruin a perfectly good soup dumpling.”[2] It was undisputable. And even more indisputable, cutting corners, even when creating a local dish continents away, could be easily detected.

Dedicatedly carrying the values of his youth into his professional life, Huang recounts the first time he walked into the Food Network studios for the show Ultimate Recipe Showdown, in which four home cooks from a national pool of more than 13,000 contestants competed in various categories. On an American show that broadcasts to a generally American public, Huang was forced to adapt to certain food culture norms. Given the task of making “party food,” he decided to prepare Chairman Mao’s red cooked skirt steak over rice, only to be told to make something handheld, a characteristic of American “finger food.” Huang accepted this request for Americanization and turned his dish into Chairman Mao’s Cherry Cola skirt steak. The suggestion did not insult him, but rather inspired him to use his multicultural heritage to create something innovative. Huang playfully recaps, “I did what every culture does when Americans can’t understand something: I put it on bread.”[3]

Often feeling like an outsider, creating food empowered Huang to find his unique place in an international America.  As quoted by Huang and as spoken by American rapper Jadakiss, “Yeah yeah, I design things and you know I’m in the hood like Chinese wings.” 

References and Notes

[1] Huang, Eddie. Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013. 272. Print.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 240.

Jocelyn Coffin is a first year Master’s of Public Diplomacy student. Her passion for security studies and writing brought her to pursue a dual path of diplomacy and journalism. She will be spending the summer in Washington, D.C. working with the U.S. Department of State in the Office of Central African Affairs.