Feb 2009

Secrets of the Red Lantern – Pauline Nguyen

About: In this moving culinary account of her family’s immigration from their native Vietnam, restaurateur Nguyen of Sydney, Australia begins: “In my family, food is our language… when we cannot speak the words “I am sorry,” we give this bittersweet soup instead.” Luckily, Nguyen is also skilled in written language; her moving, honest and painful story follows her family’s dramatic exodus from their war-ravaged homeland to the safety of Australia. There, Nguyen’s parents opened the restaurant that would give Pauline and her brother Luke the foundation for their current enterprise, The Red Lantern, one of Sydney’s most popular dining destinations. Worth the price alone is Nguyen’s masterful storytelling, including a warts-and-all look at her family and the immigrant experience. The book’s arc is entirely film-ready; indeed, color images of people, places and dishes are striking. And then there’s the recipes: more than 275 traditional Vietnamese dishes, all relatively simple to prepare (though some might require some tenacious shopping). Nguyen’s wide net catches classic comfort food like Pho Bo Tai Nam, the traditional beef noodle soup, and slow-cooked pork shoulder; fish dishes like Crispy-Skin Snapper with Ginger and Lime Fish Sauce; easy appetizers like Tom Nuong (Soy and Honey Grilled Shrimp); and exotic fare like Durian Ice Cream. Whether you buy it for the story, recipes or both, this is an essential volume for those interested in Vietnamese cooking and culture. From Publishers Weekly.

My Thoughts: Oh, Pauline Nguyen, you totally owe me a brand new keyboard and a box of tissues because I laughed and cried up a storm while reading your memoir-cum-cookbook.

Food and family go hand in hand in Vietnamese culture, so it makes perfect sense that Nguyen combined them in one cohesive tome. What sets Secrets of the Red Lantern apart from other Vietnamese cookbooks on the market is Nguyen’s heart wrenching and uplifting memoir, which is told in a painfully honest voice. The foods and memories that Nguyen reflects upon in Secrets of the Red Lantern are so intimately intertwined that they each become more meaningful when placed in the proper context of her life. At times I found myself flipping quickly through the gorgeous photos and recipes just so that I could find out what happened next—Nguyen’s life is a literal page-turner.

In addition to sharing her personal trials and tribulations with readers, Nguyen is also generous with her family’s treasured recipes, including her father’s top-secret bo kho recipe that surprisingly calls for soda pop and Laughing Cow cheese. I appreciated how the book’s photographs successfully captured the warmth and rustic quality of homemade Vietnamese food.

As a whole, I found Secrets of the Red Lantern very inspiring. While reading this book, I was not only moved to whip up Vietnamese delights, but also to make time to sit down with my grandparents to record my family’s history and recipes. We’ll always have food, but time and memories are fleeting.

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4 thoughts on “Secrets of the Red Lantern – Pauline Nguyen

  1. Cathy, I have read all of the stories but have not yet made any recipes. I really did enjoy her memoirs, especially their journey out of Vietnam. I am especially grateful that my mom did not beat me on a regular basis for no reason…

  2. Yes this is a great book. The salt and pepper squid is becoming a family favourite (its so easy and good).

  3. I should like to buy, receive your book: Secrets of the Red Lantern.
    perhaps in Dutch, French or English.

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