Friday, March 9, 2012

Secrets of the Red Lantern--Review

Is it a cookbook or a memoir? This rather perplexing book, which I chose precisely for its hybrid character, leaves me puzzled as how to best critique it. Since this is more than a memoir with a few recipes thrown in (such as Ruth Reichl's autobiographies) but more than a cookbook with a few anecdotes heading the recipes (such as Diana Kennedy's cookbooks), I've chosen to give it a dual review, which is perhaps more suited to its unusual character.

The most striking feature of this book is the thought and care that went into its design.I normally don't describe the physical attributes of a book, but this is easily the most beautiful cookbook that I've seen that might conceivably be propped onto a kitchen counter top rather than placed onto a coffee table. (I have a few of those, mostly gifts.) It's a gorgeous creation, with a solid heft, a silky top upper cover (perhaps unconsciously echoing the bi-nature of the book),  thick pages with ghostly wood-block prints floating under the text, and photographs of Pauline's family and  of luscious-looking Vietnamese dishes interspersed within. I normally view tears, water stains and grease marks on my cookbooks (travel books, as well) as badges of honor, but I almost hate the idea of using this book--who wants to get a blob of fish sauce on the elegant face of Pauline's Aunty Number Two?--without using a very large plastic shield. So as a keep-it-near-the wok working cookbook, it just skirts the edges of usability, though I am not complaining.

As to the recipes themselves: a serious case of the Norovirus has kept me from trying out any of the dishes as yet, but most of them are fairly simple home-style recipes (not Hue or Royal Court cuisine) that are within the reach of any amateur cook equipped with a gas stove and the proper ingredients. And yes, that's the problem--as many of these recipes depend on having the freshest and most authentic ingredients due to the simplicity of their preparation, perusing a dish that calls for bitter melon or sugar cane, for example, might be an exercise in frustration for some readers who don't live in metropolitan areas. There's also, not surprisingly, a long section on seafood--also difficult if one lives in an area where fresh seafood is either prohibitively expensive or just can't be found at any price. (In Germany, where I had a tiny glass-top range--utterly useless in achieving a sear-hot temperature--I would have no doubt looked longingly at the pages and then sadly clapped the book shut.) There's a list of possible substitutions and a small glossary in the back, but frankly, it all seems rather cursory. Indeed, one could say that an in-depth exploration of Vietnamese cooking is missing from the cookbook; this is perhaps understandable as Pauline and her brother came to operate their restaurant as expatriates and most of their discussions of Vietnamese cuisine are in the guise of what food meant to them in the context of their home lives; readers looking for an examination of Vietnamese food in a more historical context should look elsewhere.

There's other problems, too, that keep this cookbook from being completely functional. The measurements are an odd mishmash of  the American and Imperial systems, which is mentioned, of all places, in a tossed-out aside on the copyright page. I've never seen such a perfunctory notice in any cookbook I have ever read--and as the author admits that using Australian measurements for baking in particular could have a serious effect on the results, I am kind of hesitant in trying out any of the recipes that demand a more precise measurement. Why this notice wasn't placed on a separate page, or at least prominently featured in the preface, I have no idea. There's also no easy way of figuring out where a type of recipe might be located, as the grouping are sorted according to era (what was going on in the Nguyen family during the past several decades) which is an inconvenient organizing method that stops just short of being a bit too precious and cutesy. For example, the seafood recipes are gathered after the memoir selection in which Pauline's family flees Vietnam by boat; the vegetarian recipes in the section where Pauline describes running away from home and her mother eschews any meat until her only daughter decides to contact the family again. And the Pho recipes--for the Nguyen family the heart of the family table and her father's meticulous two-day obsession--are revealed towards the end of the book, when Pauline reconciles with her family and opens up a restaurant with her brother Luke--and her father's recipes.

This brings me to the memoir part of the book. It, too, is both interesting--and problematic. Pauline was scarcely more than a toddler when her family fled Vietnam, yet her detailed depictions of travelling by boat to Thailand, as well as her family's year-long stay in various refugee camps-- culminating in a year-long stay on a terrace in Bangkok--are presented more as actual memories than as the stories told to her by her parents, as they surely must have been. (My selection for Cambodia has also been accused of being more second-hand recollections than actual fact, but with a far more controversial reception.) Her tales of being accosted by Thai sea pirates, of her father's struggles with the bureaucrats in the camp have to be treated with--well, not with skepticism, but with the understanding in the back of the reader's mind that everything has been filtered through her parents's viewpoints. It is only when the Nguyen family finally receives permission to immigrate to Australia that Pauline's real story begins.

The many trials the Nguyen family endured in South East Asia don't stop once they reach Sydney. The stresses of assimilating, plus enduring her father's abusive personality (no doubt exacerbated by undiagnosed PTSD from his injuries as a military officer during the Vietnam war) are discussed frankly by the author, though she is circumspect as to how much physical violence her mother experienced no doubt to spare her mother's feelings and to keep her from feeling even more shame in what is a pretty blunt memoir. The children are caned for every grade below an "A", are forced into an exhausting regime of school-work-and-tutoring to turn them into "working machines". In a summary of those years Pauline states:"Fear dominated every day of my childhood. Fear and the smell of dog shit covering the yard were the smells of my youth." She eventually runs away, though she is more than a bit vague as to her age or how long she avoided contact with her family during the section called "The Lost Years": that she reconciled with her family at all was the merest coincidence. And though she's finally at peace with her father, one has to wonder if her dissemination of his cherished Pho recipes (concocted only at night after all "outsiders" had left the restaurant) isn't a bit of sly revenge, though her partner and chef at the Red Lantern, Mark Jensen, does concede that they finally managed to obtain permission from Pauline's father. It's obvious that the author's life experiences have made her a bit of a hard cookie; her relationship with her easy going partner and her daughter, whom she says was sent to save her in the nick of time, have mitigated, though not erased, the embittered aspects of her character, which to her credit she makes no attempt to hide.

I appreciated the author's brutal honesty, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out the author's purple prose tendencies, which tend to detract somewhat from her story. The skies of Paris are beautiful and lascivious; people's hearts and stomachs shrink and contract; her father has venom in his heart: it's all a bit overwrought and distracting. One wonders how much work the copy editors took with the author's prose, or if they were more concerned with the recipes.

Speaking of recipes--here's a typical one from the book:

Bo Tai Chanh (Lemon-cured Sirloin)

1 3/4 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 T fish sauce
1 t salt
2 t sugar
1 t fine white pepper
1 pound sirloin, trimmed of fat and sliced as thinly as possible
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped and fried
1/2 t reserved garlic oil from frying
1 large  handful of sawtooth herb (coriander) coarsely chopped
1 large handful rice paddy herb (coarsely chopped)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 large handful bean sprouts
2 T chopped roasted peanuts
1 bird's eye chile, sliced
Thai fish sauce for dipping

Combine first five ingredients. arrange sirloin in a single layer and marinade meat in marinade for 10 minutes. Drain, and combine with garlic, garlic oil, red onion, herbs and sprouts. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with peanuts and chile. Dress with fish sauce.

Since Julia Child said that a cook book is only as good as its worst recipe, and I haven't yet been able to try out any of the dishes from the "Secrets of the Red Lantern", let alone tackle the book from cover to cover, I find this choice for my 52-countries read a bit difficult to rate. Despite the flaws which I've described, I appreciated both the sheer craft of the volume, as well as Pauline Nguyen's no-sugar-coating-here depiction of the price immigrants often have to pay when they uproot themselves to a new land.

                                                                Four Stars



  1. What an interesting combination!

  2. I need to run out to the local asian store for ingredients now that everyone can face the hot stuff again.