Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A conversation with my Uncle Kin

I had the fun task of writing about a subject near and dear to my heart for work _ my family and their cooking. Writing about myself for work was weird. Here's what happened...I made Chinese barbecue pork using my family's method _ paper clips _ and I thought it would be funny to tweet the photo to The Associated Press food editor. He got a kick out of it and I wondered if he realized I was an AP employee, not just a follower. So I tweeted to him "if you ever reference this, I want contributing credit!" So I got an email a few days later asking me to call him. There I am in between covering news conferences on a shooting when I decided I had time to call him. He suggested I write a personal essay about this paper-clip technique but through the prism of our family traditions in the kitchen. My Uncle Kin, who is back in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the top cook in the family and the brains behind that method. With this essay coming out, there may be other Chinese families out there who will say they've been doing barbecue pork the same way, but none of them have someone in their family who likes to write so... :p

But beyond asking about his recipe, I had a chance to interview Uncle Kin like I would anyone else.
(Me starting our phone interview: "Let's keep this professional, OK Mr. Woo?"  That didn't last very long). I had the chance to try to see him as not just my uncle. And I learned a lot of cool stuff for the first time just from our hour-long chat.

_New fact #1: I was a terrible 11-year-old kid compared to my uncle.
Uncle Kin told me he started cooking at age 11 because he saw how hard my grandparents were working. They were new immigrants living in San Francisco and putting in long hours. My grandma worked at a garment factory and my grandfather was helping out a relative's business, a gift shop. They both came home pretty late and my uncle thought it would be nice to help out and get dinner started. He would make dinner for the entire family at least a couple nights a week. Let's see...when I was 11, I remember asking my mom when she came home "what's for dinner" and "when are we eating?" I might as well have been pounding a fork and knife on the dinner table.

_New fact #2: My family once co-owned a restaurant.
So, apparently sometime in the 1950s, a deceased relative left my grandfather a restaurant in what is now San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood (SOMA). It had one of those cheesy names you'd expect for a Chinese restaurant _ Golden Harbor _ yet it was American. They served burgers, grilled cheese, etc. It was very popular among retirees--mostly Caucasian. This was ironic given my grandfather, according to Kin, could barely boil water.

_New fact #3: My uncle had 10 times the responsibility I ever had at age 15.
In junior high, Uncle Kin started helping out Golden Harbor. He says that's where he picked up how to cook American fare. By age 15, he was overseeing the entire dinner shift if the head cook was off. Let's see, when I was 15, I was meeting friends at Denny's or Carrows to eat semi-crappy American food or doing homework after school. I don't know if someone had offered to teach me to cook, would I have been interested. Plus, no Jamie Oliver back then to make food prep look cool. My uncle helped run that restaurant for more than seven years until my grandfather passed away.

For my cousins, here are some quotes from my interview with "Mr. Woo":

"The funny thing is after I cook a lot of food, I don’t really feel like eating.When other people invite me for dinner, I usually don’t lift a finger to help them. I just sit back and enjoy. There’s a certain satisfaction in hearing other people praise your food."

On people calling his char sieu "paper clip pork":
"That’s a good name. I should have thought of that. It sounds more interesting than char siu. It doesn’t sound as delicious but it’s a very interesting name."

On being a true foodie in Chinese culture:
"When I was working at a company, we took this Caucasian secretary out for dim sum. She said 'Can you order me some sweet and sour pork?' I said 'absolutely not, I’m Chinese.'"

When I said I find bonding time making "paper clip pork" with my mom:
"A family that bends paper clips together stays together."
_This leads me to fact #4: I come from a family with really corny humor...something I continue to run away from.

All in all, I highly recommend everyone "interview" someone in their family. Try to see them as more than just their family title relative to you i.e. aunt, uncle, mother, father. It's a sure bet you will learn something that will surprise you and you will definitely be richer for it.