NEW YORK – As both a chef and writer, Eddie Huang has never shied away from his identity as a Taiwanese Chinese American. While all his literary and culinary creations are an amalgamation of the varied influences on his life – and very distinctly Eddie – they also pay tribute to a proud, rich heritage. Now Huang, whose best-selling memoir Fresh Off the Boat inspired the hit television show of the same name, is publishing his second hotly-anticipated book, Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food and Broken Hearts in China. Ahead of Asia Week and the Chinese New Year, we spoke with him about this latest release, the absolute best Chinese food and how he celebrates the holiday.
PHOTO CREDIT: NATE TURNER.
In your new book Double Cup Love, you return to China to explore your roots. What was it like getting back in touch with that part of yourself and the traditions that made you who you are?
It’s a reverse migration story, because my first book Fresh Off the Boat is about how my family came to America. I feel that story isn’t complete until you go home. No matter where you’re from, a part of you is always there. It’s in your spirit. It’s in your blood. It’s in a lot of the things you do. When you go back to your ancestral homeland, it’s really incredible – this wave of identity that’s been lying dormant in your soul for so long almost washes over you. And you start to look around and realize, “Hey, that’s the way I walk down the street. That’s the way I hold chopsticks. That’s the way I greet people.” You see a lot of things your parents do. You realize you don’t have to be an outsider to yourself. For a long time I never got to go to China. But since I first went in 2006, I go as much as I can. It’s really a part of me.
As a chef, did you find that returning to China reignited your love for traditional Chinese food?
There really are good Chinese restaurants everywhere, because after the [Chinese] Civil War, a lot of people dispersed from China. You can find fantastic Chinese food all over the world – in Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. But to go home and see Chinese food in its original setting and context is incredible. A lot of times the old dishes may not be to your taste because you’ve been eating them in America or Canada. But I do think there’s something cool about trying the food at its most raw, in a good way. It’s not fussy or trendy. It feels human.
What are your favourite Chinese restaurants here in New York?
I really like Nan Xiang in Flushing. I go to Ping’s for Cantonese food and dim sum. I am a huge Noodle Town fan. It’s an institution. I’m also a big Congee Village fan – I do a lot of family things and parties there. Then I love Baohaus obviously. We are the Taiwanese Chinese restaurant of this generation, and we are a New York restaurant.
I could live off Baohaus fried chicken buns.
Thank you! I appreciate that. I really feel like at Baohaus you can see that the food came out of the hands of a Taiwanese Chinese New Yorker, you know? I didn’t try to parse my identity or compartmentalize it, like I need to be more Taiwanese or Chinese. This is who I am. I love rap, football, basketball and baos.
What did you grow up eating – do you have a favourite comfort food your family made?
My favourite comfort food that my aunts and grandparents made was red pork. I also really liked my grandmother’s Hunan Dong’an zi ji. My mom’s best dish is beef noodle soup, hands down. We share a lot of dishes. My love of food and comes from my mom. Growing up she cared a lot that I knew where I was from and that I understood my culture. As a kid in America, I think one of the easiest things to grab onto and understand is food.
So Lunar New Year is coming up. Like all the best holidays, would you say that food is a cornerstone of the Lunar New Year celebration?
Absolutely! Number one it’s a spiritual holiday. You give thanks. You thank the universe. You thank the gods. You thank your ancestors. We call it bài bài. And then you eat and you celebrate.
Could you explain a bit about the meaning behind some of the more traditional foods?
Whole fish definitely. You want to serve the fish whole and not cut off the tail or head, because the luck comes in the mouth. Likewise if you have a roasted chicken or duck you need to keep it whole. Of course a lot of this stuff is superstitious, but I think it’s really cool to preserve the traditions. Especially as a kid who was born in America, it’s a nice way to connect and remember. You should also have dumplings, which symbolise money and good luck. Then there are sweet red bean buns for good fortune. Eight-Treasure Glutinous Rice represents prosperity. It’s sticky rice with candied dates, red bean paste and other ingredients … it’s really good! I would say it’s the Chinese version of a fruitcake. You know how fruitcakes are filled with a lot of weird things? This is the same except instead of flour we use rice.
Does your family dress up the table more for a holiday like that?
This is our biggest holiday of the year – you bring out the nice China, the red tablecloth. You’ve got to have lots of red. Red is good luck.
Is there anything you like to serve in particular?
For many years, I invited my friends over to cook Chinese New Year for them. That’s actually when people started to tell me, “You need to cook. You can’t just keep this to yourself in your apartment.” That’s honestly when I got the confidence to think about opening a restaurant, because people would come to my Chinese New Year and eat my steamed fish and roasted chicken.
Below, a selection of Chinese teaware, dishes and bowls from our upcoming 19 March auction Saturday at Sotheby's: Asian Art that is sure to inspire a decadent New Year feast.