We cannot find enough superlatives for Secrets of the Red Lantern. A unique and fascinating book, it is eloquently written and rich with recipes that resonate with family, with love, with the essence of a cultural. If this book may be classified as a food memoir, it also rises above genre by virtue of the elegant prose used to relate the moving story, as well as through the recipes that feel part of the creators' hearts. Either aspect of the book can stand alone: the saga of this family is compelling reading on its own, and the recipes (more than 275 of them) are all enticing. Put together they create a book of exceptional value.
After the fall of Saigon, when author Pauline Nguyen was still a small child, her family escaped South Vietnam. Without a trace of self-pity, Nguyen narrates the harrowing account of their dramatic exit from their homeland and the family's arrival in the vastly different Australia. Both parents were chefs in Vietnam and Nguyen harks back to fruit and vegetable stalls run by the family in happier days in Vietnam. She speaks of her parents' insistence on freshness, an obsession that would follow them to Australia and symbolize their bravery, as well as sustain them as they traveled a very rocky road to ultimate success. This is a story of the many faces of survival. As such, the relationship to food is deep and meaningful.
A true family story, Nguyen shares space with each member of the family without emphasizing the "I" of the author. The account of their escape by sea is fraught with danger, as much a page-turner as a best-selling novel, though this saga is a real one, and we care about this very real family. Nguyen recounts the days in refugee camps, the early days in their first home, when their table was a focal point for other exiles, food providing a relief from homesickness. She recounts the survival jobs held only long enough to establish her family and the turn to more daring entrepreneurial efforts that ultimately allowed them to live more gracefully. Through this account we witness the very soul of Vietnamese culture even as it struggles to adapt to circumstances
Nguyen is a no-holds-barred writer and does not flinch from revealing the effect of the stresses on the family, the toll they took on individual behavior and and the resulting familial relationships. She includes herself, and her personal struggles. Though the narrative ends with reconciliation and understanding, there is no real end here as it closes with the birth of the next generation and leaves the reader in wonder at life itself.
The recipes evolved from the family's adherence to culture, and to the tastes of food they loved the best, ones now shared globally by vastly different cultures. Nguyen's father obsessed over many of these recipes, working for years to perfect them, then handed them on to his children. Working with an Australian chef, Mark Jensen, (now Nguyen's partner and father of her child, an integral part of the family story) Nguyen and her brother, Luke opened The Red Lantern Restaurant with these recipes. There are recipes such as Canh Cai Xa lach Soong, a simple pork and watercress soup that carries the flavors of Asia. There are recipes in all categories such as Bun Rieu (Crab and Tomato Soup with Vermicelli Noodles), Goi Du Du (Green papaya Salad with Prawns and Pork), Che Khoai Mon (Black Sticky Rice with Taro) and for the beloved Pho, a Beef Noodle Soup, that was the ultimate triumph of Nguyen's father's years of effort. These are special recipes, resonant with years of effort, with triumph and with love.
The book is packed with photographs, many snapshots of the family throughout the years and with sumptuous food photographs. There is an appendix suggesting substitutions for hard to find ingredients, a glossary of select ingredients and a list of resources.