“Fresh Off the Boat may have deviated from restaurateur and food personality Eddie Huang’s provocative memoir of the same name, but the two still share one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for food.
On the 1990s-set ABC comedy, the Huang family’s preoccupation with food extends beyond patriarch Louis’ (Randall Park) restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch. Food is identity, food is self-expression, food is language. On a show that addresses cultural assimilation, food is one of the most tangible ways to showcase the balancing act faced by immigrants every day.
“On our show, there’s just so much wrapped up in food as being part of your culture,” creator and executive producer Nahnatchka Khan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s so inherent to the way you live and your family: It’s the thing that brings you all together, it’s the thing that makes you different also when you put yourself into the context of the white suburbs and what other people eat and what your family eats.”
For the adults in the Huang family, food is a way to hold onto their Chinese heritage, especially when it comes to teaching their sons. In “The Year of the Rat,” the first episode on TV to feature Chinese New Year, the Huangs miss their flight to D.C. and are forced to celebrate the holiday in Orlando, Fla., where it’s a struggle to find any authentic Chinese cuisine at that time. After failing to pass off jelly doughnuts as pork buns (“Same basic concept though: Dough filled with something delicious”), Louis finally hires his restaurant’s chef to custom-make the requisite dumplings, fish and other traditional dishes.
“Sheng Wang, the writer of the episode is Taiwanese and celebrates Chinese New Year every year, but all of us researched in the [writers’] room, too,” Khan says. “It’s not just random; everything has a purpose and has history behind it. There’s a reason why these specific foods are served at this time.”
Louis’ wife, Jessica (Constance Wu), is the most vigilant about her kids’ diets and proudly interprets her youngest son’s lactose intolerance as rejecting white culture. Of course the problem is that the Huangs aren’t only Chinese; they’re Chinese American, which means that embracing culture isn’t so one-sided, something Jessica learns when she unsuccessfully tries to force her kids to eat chicken’s feet.
For eldest son Eddie (Hudson Yang), pop culture and his peers also influence his desire to eat so-called white people food, such as Lunchables and pizza. His mixed palate has already bridged the two cultures…”