Ung, owner of the tremendously popular Phnom Penh Noodle House in the International District, a few weeks ago released his memoir, I Survived the Killing Fields: The True Life Story of a Cambodian Refugee. With the help of writer Thomas McElroy, Ung shares his account of his Cambodian childhood and its upending by the relentlessly brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
Ung, an average motorcycle-riding, Westerns-loving teenager, grew up working in his parents' restaurant. He was 20 years old when his hometown fell to the Khmer Rouge, igniting a horrific era of suffering and death that enveloped Ung's family. Ung fills chapters with unspeakable memories of watching his relatives starve.
"Hunger compels a person to do anything to stop the pain of it," writes Ung, who remembers trying to trap field rats and coax snakes out of their holes.
"I skinned him out, made a fire and roasted him right there," Ung writes of an encounter with a blue snake. "No salt, no seasoning, nothing. It had been a long time since I had any meat, and I remember thinking at the time that it was the best meat I had ever tasted."
Surrounded by violence, Ung fixated on his plans for the future.
"To keep myself from going crazy, I started a recipe book," he writes. "It was my thinking if and when this phase of my life ever ended, I could start a restaurant using all of the old recipes. I talked with elders in our village about their best recipes."
Later, after the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, a fellow Cambodian intercepted Ung on the road back to his hometown and offered to hire him as a cook. Ung agreed, "although there was no soy sauce in Cambodia" since fighters had destroyed the manufacturing plants.
Ung improvised a "pat lo" with water, salt, MSG, mung beans, tamarind, chili, and pork. His dish--and the cart from which he sold it--became enormously successful.
After Ung and his wife were given permission to emigrate to Seattle, Ung took a job at a downtown restaurant, cooking hamburgers, pancakes, and fried chicken. Despite a few linguistic hurdles--"I thought to myself: Hold the onion? How can I cook and hold an onion?"--Ung went on to a series of kitchen jobs at Ivar's and the Rainier Club, where he learned to sculpt fruit.
Ung opened Seattle's first Cambodian restaurant in 1987.
"On opening day, I thought back to my ESL class where my teacher asked me what I wanted to do in the future," Ung writes. "I told her my dream was to open a small café someday. And here I was, on this day with my dream coming true."
Autographed copies of Ung's book are available at the Wing Luke Museum and Phnom Penh Noodle House.