Fresh Off the Boat

There are so many ideas, cultural references, and extended riffs on identity politics in Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” it can be easy to forget the book is, at heart, a food memoir. Huang is the proprietor of Baohaus on New York’s Lower East Side, which was a smash hit from the moment it opened its doors on Christmas Eve, 2009, with just five items on the menu. Serving bao – steamed Chinese buns filled with pork, chicken, or tofu – to the neighborhood’s young, late-night-partying denizens, Huang found the purpose that had so far been lacking in his eventful life.

Raised in Orlando, Florida by immigrant parents, Huang battled racism at school and his family’s expectations he become a “model minority” at home. A self-described “rotten banana,” he grew up identifying with hip hop culture, and tried a variety of occupations, ranging from drug dealer to sneaker scalper to lawyer to stand up comic, before a stint on the Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown inspired him to return to his first love: food. Because while he was tangling with the law and grappling with his own identity, he never stopped eating. Here are four of the best food scenes from his book, from the nauseating to the mouthwatering.

1. A truly exotic meal, Orlando-style:
“I had never eaten at a white person’s house, but I just figured they ate pizza, hot dogs, or something like that… Jeff’s mom came out of the kitchen with two bowls. One bowl was filled with goopy orange stuff. The other bowl was gray and filled with a fibrous material mixed with bits of celery… Jeff started wiping the gray stuff on the bread. I didn't want to come off like an idiot so I did the same thing… I took a deep breath, clutched my orange juice, and forced myself to take a bite. Right on cue, gag reflex, boom went the orange juice… I had to ask. “What is that, man?” “ You've never had tuna fish sandwiches?” “No, never… what’s the orange stuff?” “Macaroni and cheese.” “What’s macaroni?”

2. Things got better once Huang started improvising with classics like Thanksgiving dinner:
“We dumped a bunch of salt water into a bucket and brined the turkey that year, then rubbed the infused butter under the skin… the salt carried the flavors throughout the meat and maintained its moisture. Very important lesson every good cook learns early on: master salt. It doesn’t matter how great your aromatics or spice mixes are: if you don’t have the proper salt levels, the flavors won’t travel. I also made a stuffing from scratch… I bought Popeye’s biscuits, let them dry out for a day, then sautéed some loose country sausage with butter, sage, rosemary, thyme, salt, cracked black pepper, tossed in dried biscuit crumbs and finished with a little cream, sugar, and a pinch of chili powder… Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday because it was the first one I felt like a full participant in.”

3. In the kitchen, necessity proved the mother of invention, especially with a bad case of the munchies:
“Justin called me “Gourmet,” ‘cause every time we got high, I couldn’t just eat the chips or cookies. I made ill stoner food, like Doritos sandwiches, where I took ham, turkey, and cheese and rolled it up on plates, then sandwiches them between Doritos. I’d microwave cookies and eat them with ice cream, bake macaroni and cheese with crushed Cheetos on top, real disgusting Scooby snacks… I put the frozen chimichangas on plates and starting ironing (them.) Fifteen minutes later, we were eating chimichangas with crispy exteriors and I was officially the Iron Chef.”

4. In creating his recipe for the Ultimate Recipe Showdown, an impromptu nap was the secret ingredient to his braised skirt steak:
“The skirt steak needed a good ninety minutes to break down and finish so I added some soy sauce, rock candy, and water, turned down the heat, and let it simmer. I turned on my TV to watch the Knicks game… After about thirty minutes… I passed out. I was totally knocked out when I smelled something burning…Luckily, the entire sauce hadn’t carmelized yet. I pulled out a big chunk of skirt steak and peeled off the charred crust. Underneath this crusty, dark, fossil-looking piece of skirt steak was ill, tender, dark pink pieces of sweet, savory, aromatic skirt steak. I knew from that first burnt piece of skirt steak that I had a hit record.”