Cookbook review: Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart

Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart
By Pauline Nguyen, with recipes by Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen

Secrets of the Red Lantern is really two books in one: a memoir and a cookbook. The narrative is the story of the author’s family’s escape from Việt Nam in 1977, their year-long stay in a Thai refugee camp, and their new life in Australia. Within this bigger story is the personal journey of the narrator: a painful coming of age under difficult circumstances, growing up in a new country with emotionally distant parents who are battling the crippling psychological effects of war.  At times it seems as if she were trying to understand her dysfunctional family by writing it all down. The story feels like a catharsis, a cleansing outpouring.

My main interest in adding this book to my collection was to increase my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine. For this reason, I’ve chosen to concentrate on the cookbook portion of the book, and leave the memoir for another time or another reviewer.

Fabric-bound, with cover art that evokes silk, and an elegant layout, this is a gorgeous book. The warm food styling and photography whet the appetite and the recipes are printed in a large clear font that is easy to read while cooking.

Another thing that caught my eye right away is the inclusion of the diacritics on the Vietnamese names of the dishes. While not having them doesn’t affect the recipes, it does affect the way the words are spoken and pronounced, and the ease of researching or finding an unknown ingredient. The lack of diacritics in most of the Vietnamese cookbooks on my shelf is annoying at times.

The almost 300 recipes are a combination of traditional family favourites, recipes from the Red Lantern Restaurant, and from the several food businesses of Pauline’s parents, who devoted themselves to perfecting their dishes. When I acquire a new cookbook, I like to discover dishes that I haven’t seen before, or ones that are new angles on old favourites. A look at the glossary in this one turned up a few ingredients I haven’t seen in any other Việt cookbooks, and rarely or never in Việt Nam.

Curry leaves, for example, are more common in the cuisine of India. In Việt Nam they are called lá móc mật, and as far as I know, are only used in the north.  “Hot bap” had me puzzled, because my first thought was that she meant corn kernels (hột bắp) but without the diacritics, I wasn’t sure. The Latin name included,  Amomum dravanah, indicates that this is a spice in the same genus as cardamom.

After much research, the closest I came to this name was Amomum kravanh or “round cardamom”, used medicinally in China, where it’s called bai dou kou. I couldn’t find anything about A. dravanah. A. subulatum, or black cardamom, seems to be the only one used in Việt Nam, where it’s called thảo quả and used in the north. I’m still not sure exactly what kind of seed is required, but I enjoyed the adventure of rooting through botanical catalogues and herbals trying to find out.

This “hot bap” is called for in the family recipe for bò kho, a beef stew, along with several other aromatic spices and strangely, Laughing Cow cheese and cola (the beverage).  Although I’m not sure about using processed cheese in a beef stew, I am intrigued by the use of these unusual ingredients. I suspect some of the ingredient choices came from trying to create the right flavours using foods available in the markets of Cabramatta, where the family lived.

So far, I’m pleased with all the recipes I’ve tried. The tôm rim on p. 60 was particularly tasty, with its rich tomato based sauce. Tôm nướng or grilled shrimp, marinated in a soy, oyster sauce and honey mixture, was slightly sweet, a little salty and well balanced with just a hint of heat from a single fresh chili pounded in a mortar.

I’ve marked mực nướng xả, grilled squid with lemongrass, and gỏi cua lột, a crab salad with banana blossoms and pomelo to try next, followed by the gỏi cá sống ( p. 331), for which ocean trout is cured with sugar, salt and cognac and served with fresh herbs. I was excited to find a recipe for avocado ice cream, and one for shrimp and pennywort soup (canh rau má tôm), which is common enough in Vietnamese kitchens but rarely found in cookbooks, probably because it’s considered too plain.

Instead of suggesting prepared patés for  bánh mì sandwiches,  the authors have included instructions for how to make them. Recipes are also included for pickled vegetables, home-made garlic mayonnaise, sour pork and more. Though these items can easily be purchased in Asian markets, they are always better made at home, and having the recipes means having the choice.

I was puzzled by the “red rice” recipe (cơm đỏ) prepared with day old rice fried in butter with garlic and mixed with tomato paste for colour. There is no blurb to explain the background of this recipe. I wondered if it was originally a dish to be used as an offering, prehaps a version of xôi gấc, sticky rice with momordica fruit, for when no sticky rice or gấc fruit is available. Butter is rarely used in Vietnamese cooking, and I was especially surprised to see it combined with rice. A beef recipe in the book calls for this red rice to be served alongside.

The recipes are clear and easy to follow, though the novice to Asian ingredients may be disappointed with the very limited glossary. This book also lacks a Vietnamese index. Don’t bother trying to look up “phở”. You won’t find it. Nor will you find “gỏi  cuốn”, but rather “rice paper rolls, soft, with (name of filling)”.  “Chả giò”, also known as “nem”, or imperial rolls, isn’t listed as any of these. Searching the index, I thought I might find them under “fried”, “rolls” or “appetizers”, but none of these entries existed. Just when I’d given up, thinking there was no recipe for chả giò in the book, I found two. One is a vegetarian version. The authors have called them “Red Lantern Crisp Parcels” and “Vegetarian Crisp Parcels”. They are listed under “noodles” and also under “mushrooms”. Confused yet?

To complicate things further, the book is not in a straightforward appetizers, soups, meat, seafood, vegetarian, dessert kind of order, and chapter titles don’t give a clue as to what category of recipes are included. Chè, usually translated as “sweet soups” and served as a dessert or sweet snack, are lumped in with soups, stews and liquid foods at the beginning, with a few more appearing at random in other chapters. The memoir seems to be the book’s primary focus, with recipes arranged to accompany the narrative.

For those who have a particular dish in mind, it can be hard to find. Chicken cabbage salad, or gỏi gà, is found in the index as “master stock chicken, shredded cabbage, and Vietnamese mint salad”. This sounds like three different dishes. I finally wrote down the names of all the recipes in each chapter, with their page numbers, in order to have an index I could use at a glance and to attempt to decode the pattern in which the recipes are ordered. Just when I thought I saw a pattern emerging, and I’d figured out that I was in the fish and seafood chapter, a beef salad recipe appeared in between a crab recipe and one for shrimp salad with bitter melon, followed by beef pho, and then three deserts.

Despite the annoyance of being unable to find recipes quickly, I’m really looking forward to trying more of them. This is a beautiful coffee table book, but it will spend a lot of time in my kitchen. I recommend this cookbook for anyone already familiar with Asian and Vietnamese ingredients, or willing to do a little research. These recipes are worth it.

You can read more about Pauline Nguyen on her “about” page on the Red Lantern website. Mark Jensen and Luke Nguyen also have “about” pages; follow the links to the left of their group photograph on Pauline’s page.

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This entry was posted in book reviews, Books, Cooking, Food, Memoir, Recipes, Viet Nam and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Cookbook review: Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart

  1. Sounds like a beautiful book and your review is very thorough!

    May the recipes and dishes bring you and yours many good meals.

    You are clearly an expert in Vietnamese cooking. :)

    • chris says:

      Thanks, Berit! There are still many Vietnamese dishes that I haven’t tried yet, including some regional varieties of foods I have tried. I’d say I’ve mastered a few dishes, but there is still much cooking and eating and learning to be done. :) I have no doubt that the recipes in this book will lend to some great meals.

  2. Thanks Chris for the great review. I am a bit surprised that the publisher and editor for the book did not at least come up with a better index for the recipes. One wonders what they were thinking. Perhaps they were only interested in the book as a memoir.

  3. chris says:

    Thanks, Yamabuki. I wondered the same thing. I found the memoir could have used a lot more editing too. Surprising, considering how beautiful it is on many other levels.

  4. Lan says:

    this book sounds wonderful. your pictures show that it is indeed beautiful. going to add it to my Vietnamese cookbook shelf for sure! thanks much for a thorough review that tells me what to look out for. agree very much that the use of butter in the red rice recipe is very weird, and I’d love to know too, the background for the recipe. wonder if you are right, that it’s based on xoi gac?

    • chris says:

      Hi Lan, I tweeted the question to Mark Jensen, who said he thinks that this red rice is traditional with bo luc lac (shaking beef). I ran a search and did get a few hits on recipes for red rice coloured with tomato, just like the recipe in this book, and even found another recipe with butter.

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