Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart
by Pauline Nguyen
Publisher: Murdoch Books, Country: AU
ISBN: 9781740459044, Year: 2007
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

An attractive book presenting the story of the family of an Australian Vietnamese restaurateur and the Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney. It combines narrative with recipes. The photography is warm. Decorative patterns add a great deal to the appeal of the pages and to the fabric cover. The book is both saddening and frustrating. Despite the visual attraction and the promise of delicious food, Secrets of the Red Lantern presents a bleak narrative and has serious flaws which greatly mar the experience for some readers.

Few Australians have much understanding of the refugee experience or, more to the point, the Australian Vietnamese experience. It is good to see an attempt to recount the situation of people escaping Vietnam to seek a new life, the treatment as refugees in camps and then Australia, and how they have struggled and changed over the last thirty years. Combining this with the theme of food is logical. Many evocative books on food combine personal experience with the web of memory and emotion sustained by food. However, the story of this family involves so much suffering — largely at the hands of the writer’s father — that I found it uncomfortable to read this in what is clearly meant to be a cookbook. By ‘uncomfortable’ I don’t mean confronting; instead, I felt the narrative was out of place in this book.

Visually and culinarily this is certainly a good book. The food is a modern, personal perspective on Vietnamese cuisine. The book successfully communicates the concept of Vietnamese food being about individual tastes and preferences.

If, however, you expect some fairly basic standards of writing and editing in something aiming to be much more than an unpretentious recipe book, then reader beware! There are inconsistencies in the use of measurements, terms for ingredients, and inadequate explanation of ingredients. It’s also a pity, that this work is modern Australian English, blog style, ranging from stylish description to jarring officialese to clichéed emptiness to rambling diarising and back again. I doubt a copy editor ever laid eyes on the manuscript. I also feel there is a lack of depth to the food theme. It’s fine to use gastronomic metaphors and to recount meals or dishes and their occasional symbolism, but there is little explanation, cultural history or context for the food — the narrative will leave the uninitiated only a little wiser as to what most Vietnamese food is.

Many people will like this book and react with sympathy to the narrative, rather than noticing its flaws.

Main rating: No strong recommendation
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Quite nice
A version of this review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf has appeared elsewhere previously.
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Secrets of the Red Lantern, Pauline Nguyen | 2007 | AU, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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