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Monday, July 22, 2013

Fresh Off the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat
A Memoir
Written by Eddie Huang

ISBN 13: 9780679644880
ISBN 10: 0679644881
Publisher: Spiegel and Grau
Hardcover: 288 pages

The first chapter begins with the merits of a perfect soup dumpling and then all I could think about was visiting Taiwan for those tasty soup dumplings. Hats off to you Eddie Huang, you know how to hook an audience in. This memoir was not what I expected and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. No, he's not a Michelin-starred chef or someone with a large kitchenware line, but Eddie writes about sports, style, the Asian culture, barriers for immigrants, and food - he covers a lot of ground.

While Eddie's personality might take you aback, I was secretly cheering him on as he attempted to break the expectations and stereotypes. I liked that I was able to draw on some similarities with his upbringing. I'm sure Orlando and Fort Lauderdale are quite different cities, but our respective parents chose to move to North America for similar reasons. They were from Taiwan, we were from Hong Kong/Vietnam. His parents opened a seafood restaurant and  my parents - now that I think about it, who had no credentials or experience - opened a Japanese take-out restaurant. (If you're wondering, our restaurant didn't do very well, I don't think sushi was very popular back then. Nor was my father trained about the cusine - now that I've had the chance to eat some pretty good Japanese food. But still, customers would look at our menu and decide to go next door for French fries. That was the kind of crowd we were getting, they wanted something familiar and safe.) I remember going to school in Fort Lauderdale and looking at the student body. There was only one other student of Asian background at my elementary school, she was also in the same grade as me, but was in a different homeroom so we never became friends. I had large, pink plastic glasses and a terrible bowl cut.

We didn't have a microwave in the cafeteria, or if we did, I never knew about it. My mom packed me lunches and had me always asking for Lunchables to fit in with the rest of the kids. Even today, I feel that my colleagues might not like the aromas coming from my cubicle during lunch time. Re-heated fried rice with bak choi and char siu (barbecued pork)? Lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf)? I still feel hesitant using the microwave at work, sure that the smell would waft out in to the production department and cause colleagues to wrinkle their nose. What do they think of my lunch that's wrapped in a leaf? Everyone else was heating up pasta lunches or making salads and sandwiches.

Eddie obviously took different paths, I didn't get into fights at school, do drugs, get incarcerated, go to law school, become a comedian, compete on Food Network, start up a street-wear business, or write a book. We don't have the same taste in clothes or music. We don't share the same passion for sports. And my father isn't a gangster (although Howard feels otherwise). I would probably never be brave enough to move to New York City and open a restaurant either. In fact, Eddie has likely read more books than I have. But the way he talks about food and race, he hits issues right on the head. People may scoff at Eddie's vernacular and refuse to read what he has to say, but they should. Take this paragraph as an example:
"Are you interested in this food because it's a gimmick you can apply to French or New-American food to separate yourself from others? Or, will you educate your customers on where that flavor came from? Will you give credit where it's due or will you allow the media to prop you up as the next Marco Polo taking spices from the Barbarians Beyond the Wall and 'refining' them? The most infuriating thing is the idea that ethnic food isn't already good enough because it goddamn is. We were fine before you came to visit and we'll be fine after. If you like our food, great, but don't come tell me you're gonna clean it up, refine it, or elevate it because it's not necessary or possible. We don't need fucking food missionaries to cleanse our palates. What we need are opportunities outside kitchens and cubicles."
Howard and I had the chance to visit Eddie's eatery, BaoHaus, last year. The food held such strong memories for Howard. He took a few bites and was instantly transported back to his childhood in Taiwan. He can go on and on about how amazing the food in Taiwan is, how cool the night markets are, but how he would never want to live there because Toronto is home. Still, food can cause a certain yearning in you.

I would urge you to pick up this book and give it a read. There's some comical moments, interesting thoughts, and some new perspectives.

Disclaimer: A copy of Fresh Off the Boat was ordered by me as a employee gift program. There was no agreement or expectations that a review would be written and posted on this site.

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