Awkwafina Shares Childhood Food Memories Over a Glass of Soju
The star of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘The Farewell’ shares memories of growing up at her grandma’s Chinese restaurant—and making “f—king ugly dumplings.”
Awkwafina is getting tipsy in a conference room. I've brought the rapper-turned-actress a bottle off my favorite yuzu soju since we're both Korean (she's half Korean, half Chinese), toasting to her incredible new movie The Farewell, a (mostly true) story of love and loss. In the film, which hits theaters on July 12, her character Billi discovers her beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) is dying of lung cancer—but she and her extended family decide to hide it from her so she doesn't have to suffer the burden of knowing she's dying. Instead, they throw a wedding as an excuse to get everyone back to China and say goodbye to her, which is toughest on Billi. The craziest part? The story was based on writer-director Lulu Wang's real life and her relationship with her Nai Nai.
In between sips of the rice liquor, we discuss how her life compares to Billi's. Nora—Awkwafina is her stage name—lost her mother when she was four, and was raised by her grandma, who ran "giant strip mall" restaurant Lum's in Flushing, Queens. Food has been a central point of her entire life, starting with stealing spoonfuls of egg drop soup directly from the pot at Lum's and being envious of other Asian kids' intricate sushi lunches in elementary school.
Below, she shares her go-to restaurant order when out with her Crazy Rich Asians cast, why she connects to her Chinese side more than her Korean side, and how her grandma taught her how to be confident in everything except her dumpling-making abilities.
Rachael Ray Every Day: What was it like growing up at the restaurant? Was the food at Lum's a lot different from how your grandma cooked for the family at home?
Awkwafina: At the restaurant I was spoiled, because I was the owner's grandkid. I'd go back there, and what I loved eating was white rice with just soy sauce on it. I would take my own spoon, and I'd open the egg drop soup and eat directly from it. My grandma was so mad at me! She didn't talk to me for days. I went and put my hand in an MSG container, took a big scoop with my hand, and ate it all. I remember feeling so thirsty that I couldn't talk. I was crazy.
The food at the restaurant wasn't always for all Asian people. It was the Americanized Chinese dishes. At home, my grandma would make a combination of Cantonese style and also northern style, because she's from Beijing, but my grandpa was from Guangzhou. We would have lap cheong sausage in the steamer and pig tail stews—crazier dishes at home.
Was there anything that you ever brought to lunch at school that people were like, "What the hell is that?! Why don't you have peanut butter and jelly like me?"
I had the opposite experience in school. I would hang out with the Asian girls at school, and they would all have these delicious boxes of rice and leftovers. Exactly what you'd want for lunch. You don't want a sandwich! This one girl was Japanese, and she had a little bento with sweet egg, rice, and that thing that's brown, kind of looks like skin, and inside is rice?
Yeah, inari! She'd bring that or sometimes she'd bring sushi, and I would be so freaking jealous. I was like, "What are you guys doing? What the hell am I doing?" My grandma would send me in with a bagel. I was like, "I got a bagel with nothing in it," because my grandma didn't know how to prepare bagels. I was always very jealous of the delicious food leftovers that everyone else had.
In The Farewell, there is a massive amount of food on the table at all times. Was your household always abundant with food?
It wasn't always abundant with food. My grandma was cooking every night, and you'd better be eating that, because she would get really mad if you wouldn't. In The Farewell, I think food symbolizes how hard it is to have this thing that's over your head. When you're grieving you don't want to eat, right? When food is always around, it's very symbolic of something. I think that's what the food and The Farewell represented for me, is an overabundance of something that you just can't even think about right now, but it's always there. In a way, how people digress from talking about other things. It's a distraction.
Was your relationship with your grandma similar to Billi and her Nai Nai's?
I was talking to another reporter, and they saw a common theme of unconditional love in the movie. My grandma raised me with unconditional love. People used to make fun of me about my [low, raspy] voice. I've always had this voice, even as a kid, and my grandma told me, "Don't ever be ashamed of what makes you weird, because that is why I love you, and that's what makes you special." I think I got that confidence very young from her, and also, just seeing her as this matriarch, the neck of my family. She was so strong. She never cowered in the presence of men. It was never any of those stereotypes that you'd think of when it comes to Asian women in that world. She showed me that those stereotypes don't exist. It was okay if I was a tomboy. She let me play sports. She let me do all that stuff, and it was never weird. I never had to fit into anything.
That's amazing. You also had to deal with grief from a young age, since your mother died when you were four. How did you cope with that?
I think when I was four, I understood what was going on around me, but there was an urgency for me to cut through with something else. I didn't want people around me to be crying all the time. I didn't want to be an emblem of sorrow as the kid who was left behind. That was when I first realized that there was a person in me that wanted people to feel joy. So I entertained people and made them laugh. Humor was a big thing, because I was able to laugh about things that were very dark. It was definitely a defense mechanism, and it was where I wanted to go to not have to talk about how I felt about losing my mom.
Do you have any memories of cooking with your mom or your grandma?
No, I was always raised by people who wouldn't let me. My grandma never even let me do the dishes. She never trusted me with a dumpling, because when I was little, I took the bowl of egg whites and drank it. She never trusted me again. She also didn't want me to waste dumpling ingredients, because my dumplings were so f—king ugly that they never looked like real dumplings. It was less of, "you shouldn't do this" than "you're going to f—k up my dumplings and I only have a couple."
Now, as an adult, do you have any desire to learn how to cook Chinese? Or even Korean food?
I have a desire to understand the recipes, because I feel like there's a lot of baseline ingredients in both Korean and Chinese cooking. But I'm not good at cooking. I can't do it.
What about cooking are you bad at? Patience, following a recipe…
I can't do meat. I don't know how. I can never gauge when it's cooked. I never know what's inside, what it will look like inside. I don't know how to boil. I can cook pasta al dente, but I don't know how to cook the meat that goes with the pasta. I make chicken raw or completely burnt. Can you teach me how to cook? Seriously. Can you?
Yes, I'll teach you everything I know. Food-wise or life-wise, do you feel more connected to your Chinese side than your Korean side?
I do, because my mom was Korean and she was gone when I was so young. I really didn't talk to my Korean family. It's different meeting your older relatives. They're talking to you in Korean and you can't really understand it, but you know you're Korean and there's a connection. It really wasn't until I met this group of Korean rappers, who are my best friends now, and they really reintroduced me to the Korean culture.
You are working on a new TV show about your life. How pivotal of a role does food play in this show?
Food definitely plays a role, because I grew up eating very American food and traditional Chinese food. My character will wake up to jok [rice porridge] or crullers, but she'll also drink Mountain Dew. In an Asian American household you grow up with both, because you can't avoid the American shit.
You're filming the show here in New York City. If you take out your cast or your friends to a spot like Congee Village or a Chinese restaurant, what do you order?
I'd get a big ol' congee with tons of pidan in it, the black century egg. I love Chinese vegetables, so I'd get bok choy with oyster sauce and Chinese okra, and then a big fish. I learned from my grandpa that Chinese men, when they're taking someone out, it's just anything that you want. Anything that you want, all on me. I really have adopted that. I love taking people out. My order will change if I'm with the Crazy Rich Asians cast vs. when I am with all non-Asian people. One of my favorite cuisines is Taiwanese, and my grandpa's favorite dish was kidneys. It was really hard for my friends to understand why we'd eat that, or stinky tofu. So if I'm not with a group of Asians, I'll order things that maybe they're a little more used to. I like to make sure everyone's happy and full.