ARTICLE

Review: Secrets of the Red Lantern, by Pauline Nguyen

Secrets of the Red Lantern - cover

The recently released Secrets of the Red Lantern is a beautiful book. The photography is warm, despite a muted palette. Decorative patterns add a great deal to the appeal of every recipe page. The fabric cover of the book reproduces a silk image of a tree's branches and blossoms in the upper half, and the handwritten name of the author (and family) on a red background in the lower half.

I had seen pre-release promotional materials for Secrets of the Red Lantern and was more than a little enthusiastic about seeing the final product. When I finally saw the real thing I grabbed it immediately. Beautiful.

I've spent the last few days reading it; I'm sad and frustrated. Despite the visual attraction and the promise of delicious food, Secrets of the Red Lantern has some profound flaws which could greatly mar the experience for some readers.

More about that below, but first a brief description of the content.

Overview

The blurb on the back of the book says:

Secrets of the Red Lantern overflows with sumptuous, traditional recipes, perfected and passed down from Pauline Nguyen's parents and presented night after night to great acclaim at the successful Vietnamese restaurant Red Lantern.

Much more than a cookbook, it is the honest, revealing story of the Nguyen family – starting with their escape from Vietnam during the war and their eventual settlement in Australia.

At the heart of this book is a love for food – it helped to ease homesickness, became central to their early success in Australia and, in the end, reconciled the family and helped create Red Lantern's success.

Lavishly illustrated with personal and food photography, Secrets of the Red Lantern now unlocks the Nguyen's secret recipes so that we can understand their creation and share the family's passion.

A large part of the book is devoted to Pauline Nguyen's personal narrative of her family's experience, with many interesting photos to add life and colour. Each section of the book begins with a number of pages of text and photos, and is then followed by a handful of recipes. The story is not a pleasant one. 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 conditions under which people escaped Vietnam to seek a new life, how they were treated as refugees in camps and then in Australia, and how they and their community have struggled and changed over the last thirty years here.

Combining this narrative with the theme of food is logical for this family, and many of the most evocative books on food combine personal adventure, experience, or suffering with the web of memory and emotion sustained by food. However, the story of this family involves so much suffering — much of it in Australia and at the hands of the writer's father — that I found it uncomfortable to be reading their story in the context of what is clearly meant to be a cookbook. By 'uncomfortable' I don't mean confronting or disquieting to my sensibilities; instead, I felt that the narrative was out of place for the type of work that this volume represents. This should quite possibly have been two entirely separate books: the family story, and a cookbook. A raw, unhappy description of — in part — a group of children's experiences at the hands of a tyrannical father is difficult to squeeze comfortably between the covers of a cookbook.

Naturally, this is a subjective issue and others might not mind it. However, there are other significant objective issues that spoilt it for me, but I think the human interest focus will leave many readers reluctant to criticise the story and tolerant of the flaws.

recipe 1

The publishers know their marketing requirements and created a package that would sell itself. You are, after all, pretty much guaranteed a winner in the soft lifestyle market if you bundle (1) excellent production values, (2) beautiful pictures of food, (3) a strong human interest story, and (4) a cuisine that many people like but few know much about.

If you just want a book that looks great, has interesting recipes and delicious photography, then this is certainly a good book. The food is a modern, personal perspective on Vietnamese cuisine, as served at the Red Lantern restaurant, and the book successfully communicates the concept of Vietnamese food being about individual tastes and preferences.

If, on the other hand, you expect some fairly basic standards of writing and editing in something that aims to be much more than an unpretentious recipe book, then reader beware!

My commentary below is fairly unflattering (but don't doubt my enthusiasm about the food). In criticising Secrets of the Red Lantern, I run the risk that some readers who focus on the symbolic value of the book will be unaccepting of the analysis that follows. They have the choice of not reading further, or of reading and then commenting at the end if they so wish (but please keep it reasoned and civil).

[UPDATE: In an email from Murdoch Books received as I was finalising this review, they confirmed that sales had been excellent and that my views weren't 'widely shared' among the media reactions so far.]

Recipes and food

If you want to skip the detail about the editorial flaws in the recipes, click here to go to the next section.

Attractive and tasty, the range of recipes is interesting and promising. Many start with comments from chefs Luke Nguyen or Matthew Hansen. If you cook from this book I think you will enjoy many pleasurable meals.

The recipes have been written/edited with an international audience in mind, meaning that many amounts appear in metric, Imperial and cups. Many ingredients also have alternative names in parentheses. This is thoughtful, though at times makes for cumbersome text. There are also some inconsistencies and omissions.

Yields for soups and stocks are stated in litres, fluid ounces and cups, and here things give a clue to the strange approach to this book.

250 ML (9 FL OZ/1 CUP)
15 LITRES (525 FL OZ/60 CUPS)

It would seem that the Imperial measures are for a UK audience, despite the USA being the place that is most clearly unmetricated. This matters only a little bit if converting small amounts, as a 'US customary unit' fluid ounce is 29.6 ml, while the old Imperial fluid ounce is 28.4 ml, but is nonetheless a curious choice.

Restating 15 litres of stock as 525 fl oz is more than a little idiosyncratic (not to mention incorrect). Never heard of pints? The cup measures are Australian (though this is never mentioned) rather than American, contrary to what you might expect from the mention of ounces immediately preceding them.

It's odd, again, to choose UK Imperial measures when the majority of the parenthetic renaming of ingredients is for an American audience (e.g., shrimp, cilantro), though with the occasional UK accommodation (aubergines, mangetout).

Then we have a few instances of brand-specified products – something that makes life difficult for anyone who doesn't have access to that particular product:

red curry powder ('Ayam' brand)
crabmeat paste with soya bean oil ('Pork Wan' brand)

And there's the curious choice of specifying 'makrut (kaffir lime) leaves' in a recipe. The number of Australian readers who will recognise the term makrut is miniscule. So why prefer it over the common one (kaffir lime)?

Here, in the ingredients, is where the book fails to live up to a cook's expectations: a gorgeous volume about Vietnamese food, one of the few available anywhere, yet it fails to explain less familiar ingredients (no glossary or explanation for rice paddy herb, sawtooth coriander, perilla, 'Vietnamese basil', rau kinh gioi, 'nem powder' and more) or to provide a coherent picture of how everything should come together in Vietnamese cuisine.

The recipes seem, thank goodness, to work.

recipe 2

The narrative and the lack of an editor

Pauline Nguyen has a sad, valuable, and at times fascinating story to tell. Like the majority of authors, her prose would normally have gone through an editorial filter to produce something fairly tight, reasonably well expressed and mostly interesting. It's a pity, then, 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 wrote to Murdoch Books to ask if there is a new philosophy of 'raw author's voice' taking hold.

I doubt — without even a pinch of exaggeration — that a copy editor laid eyes on the manuscript, as the problems in the text are consistent throughout. And not just trifling matters that an uptight editor might carp on about (split infinitives, starting sentences with 'and', misplaced commas, etc). No, this is undisciplined text which needed help. At times it looks like someone writing a bit above the linguistic 'register' they are comfortable with, and sometimes it's just modern ignorance about language (malapropisms, agonised metaphors, etc). And there's almost certainly a good dose of non-native speaker in the prose as well. I don't mean that patronisingly — many of the register problems, mismatching tenses and malapropism/confusion phenomena can be found in non-native speaker writers and weak native speaker writers alike. Making editing decisions about this kind of text is important and sensitive. (I won't go into the linguistic background to this, as I think that's probably a distraction.)

Editors are meant to iron out these bumps whilst retaining the author's underlying voice. Perhaps because this is such a skilfully packaged cookbook, Murdoch Books couldn't be bothered doing the extra work?

[UPDATE: The email from Murdoch Books indicated that there had indeed been editors and proofreaders involved. I bite my tongue.]

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.

Meanwhile, statements like the following are bland and dismissive:

There is great fondness and respect dedicated by food writers and pho obsessives alike to the national soup of Vietnam. … Pho has integrated so completely into Australian society that there is no longer the need to refer to it as 'beef noodle soup' – everyone knows what pho is. p191

Sure, as long as they live in a major metropolitan area and have actually been to a Vietnamese restaurant.

I started reading this book with enthusiasm. At first I was irritated by the poor quality of the prose. Then I gradually found myself angry with the publishers for mistreating an author in this manner. I've criticised Pauline Nguyen's writing here, but the important point is that it's probably not her fault that it made it into a book in this way. The publishers seem to have let down both the author and the readers.

I haven't included examples in most of this critique. Some can be found below, without any commentary from me. If you don't find anything jarring in them, then you will probably find the narrative less distracting than I did, in which case I encourage you to enjoy the book and its recipes.

- DM

Examples

In the mornings, Lewis, Luke and I would wake up weary-eyed to the smell of old alcohol, dirty dishes and stale cigarettes, and knowing a big job laid waiting for us. p76

The United Nations representatives gave him the occasional job of translating menial documents. p107

He had received such a beating that blood poured freely from his nose and his once slanted eyes swelled like two bloated goose livers. Then the soldiers declared that Linh be thrown into the gaol cell, the Vietnamese surged forward in uproar, only to be stopped dead in their tracks by ten heated rifles. p110

The soldiers lowered their arms when Paul Jones, the program director of the camp, summonsed my father for a private meeting. p110

She was an American who spoke the Queen's English and liked to elongate her words by curling her 'r's and rounding her 'o's as though her mouth and lips were permanently wrapped around a tight cumquat. p113

In the kitchen, I helped my mother set up the mis en plus while my father greeted his regular breakfast customers. p182 [original emphasis]

Over time, the wounds healed and the bruises faded as the entire community banded together, determined to fix the issues affecting it. Residents walked the streets with members of the local government, pointing out areas that needed attention. The state government's participation saw the installation of closed circuit security cameras, improved street lighting, widening of footpaths, removal of vegetation and the increase in pedestrian police. p189

I can still recall the stench of my fear when I stepped onto the wrong train going home from school one day. It was overcast – the claustrophobic clouds had already descended with an air of nervous anxiety. In a flutter of lateness, I had mistakenly caught the express train … p223f

How it aches my heart that your tears are dry. How my body trembles that you cry only deep inside. p225

The Parisian daylight had yet to become night, even at the late hour of half past eleven in the evening. An unnatural stillness filled the air as the city waited for darkness to truly fall before the night-owl activities commenced. The sun, in its mysterious glory, had cast a warm majestic hue over the city's beige limestone walls, setting her aglow in magical pink-orange luminosity. p285

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COMMENTS

15 responses to “Review: Secrets of the Red Lantern, by Pauline Nguyen”

  1. Y

    As a big fan of Red Lantern, I've been eagerly awaiting this book's release ever since I heard that it was about to be published. I'd wondered if they would publish their true recipes though, rather than "home-cook friendly" versions, as some chefs do, as I remember from that SBS program, that the father had made quite a fuss about the recipes being a secret.

    Pity then, that there's so much to be said about it that's quite negative. The personal stories sounded interesting, but if they are as depressing as you describe them to be, then they may make for hard reading material, especially in a cookbook!

    Photography looks gorgeous, based on your pictures. I also don't mind it when brands are specified in recipes, because if you want to recreate a recipe as closely as possible, it helps to know the tips and tricks that the restaurant uses. Red curry paste for example, tastes vastly different from brand to brand.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting my own copy and trying out the recipes.

  2. Debbie

    Hi Duncan,

    I love the American English being equated with the Queen's English – I wonder how that works exactly?

    And perhaps the mention of brand names is advertising (like product placement). Do you think that's possible – does that happen in books?

    Finally, I think a lot of people would be afraid to have a negative opinion about such a book (although granted, some people might appreciate the book as it is). Anyway, what I mean is, I think your review is refreshing.

    Debbie

  3. neil

    I was curiously aroused by the American who spoke the Queen's English, but as to the rest of your examples, it's hard not to agree. Why would they do that to an author? It seems to be a deliberate ploy to say it like it is, perhaps it's the new way, influenced in part by blogs and blogging. Whatever, I would never buy an uncut, unpolished diamond, especially knowing how it could sparkle.

  4. stickyfingers

    Thank you for that trenchant review. I had been coveting Andrea Q. Nguyen's book 'Into The Vietnamese Kitchen' and had earmarked it for my next birthday present. But yesterday I stumbled upon 'Secrets of The Red Lantern' in The Albert Park Bookstore and was seduced by its glamours. I felt torn.

    On reading your review – as much as it annoys me to read poorly written work – I believe I may buy both books, Andreas' for the recipes and Pauline's for the story.

    My reasoning is thus, I have a strong connection with Vietnam. I was initially raised in Hong Kong by an ethnic Chinese grandmother who spent part of her childhood in Danang. Then as a child, my family assisted many Vietnamese refugees at the Springvale Migrant Hostel in Melbourne. I heard a great many sad stories of trauma, of families deliberately broken up, stripped of assets, 're-educated' and re-settled, of torture and barbarism. I also witnessed first hand the shameful racism in Australia towards the refugees.

    This year after my Grandmother's death, I went to Vietnam and discovered a bond I had not anticipated. I was in awe of the generosity, humour and optimism of the people who had endured such immense horror and hardship and was blessed that, in private, they were candid about their experiences. They endured when many of us would have wished we were dead.

    For most Asians, food is a major preoccupation. The Oriental ethos is quite lateral in its presentation so the overlap of multiple concepts would be considered natural. The notion of separating the suffering and family tales from food is a Western concept whereby everything is politely and neatly niched in order not to challenge and provoke. Within that framework a cookbook should be just that, but to understand the Vietnamese culture is to swallow the pain along with the food.

  5. Nhi

    I've been making a compilation of my Mum's recipes and was quite moved when I came across this book. I can't wait to try out and compare these recipes with my mother's.

    Your critique is interesting and very thoughtful. I do agree it's important that an editor promotes correct and consistent spelling/grammar, as long as it's not at the expense of smooth and clear communication. Poorly placed commas annoy me, as it can make for clumsy sentences or can completely change meaning. Criticism about split infinitives and sentences starting with "And" generally leave me cold.

    Changes in literary style also don't bother me as long as they're done with finesse. (In fact, they can be refreshing.) I gather from this critique that the changes are rather jarring. That is unlikely to stop me from buying the book however.

    It's a beautiful book, with a beautiful heart. The substance and intention mean more to me than the fact that it is not a finely finished product. Perhaps it moves me because I come from a similar background. I treasure and abhor many things that make up the Vietnamese character, culture and history – but I would not wish to deny them. (I admit it would be disturbing, though, if she had included graphic images of the Vietnamese wars.)

    The only thing that I truly wish was in the book is that glossary of ingredients you suggested, including their Vietnamese equivalent. There are many ingredients that I and others only know by their Vietnamese name or vice versa.

    My mother has her favourite brands, such as Ayam, (who doesn't?) so I'd be very surprised if this is commercial product placement. Using particular brands helps you get the closest possible taste to what someone creates, but if you can't find them – improvise! The intention is not to limit but to share. Cooking is about the joys of sharing and experimentation, not about rigidly sticking to rules.

  6. Nhi

    Thanks Duncan,

    Just to clarify – I didn't necessarily mean improvise by making up a similar ingredient (though that's fine too if you happen to know how). In the example cited, we have:

    * red curry powder ('Ayam' brand)
    * crabmeat paste with soya bean oil ('Pork Wan' brand)

    If the Ayam brand is not available, why not try another red curry powder? Or even a green curry powder – yum! That's all I meant.

    By the way, if people don't have Asian grocers near them, they will probably have a hard time finding many popular brands as, not surprisingly, that's where most Asians shop.

    I think I'll contact the publishers too about the lack of glossary, as I find it a little frustrating too!

    Cheers and thanks again for the detailed review.

  7. Tom

    Nice detailed review, but I found it amusing that you were critical that the author began sentances with "and" when the sentance before this actually started with "and"!

  8. Secrets of the Red Lantern, Pauline Nguyen | 2007 | AU [brief] - The Gastronomer's Bookshelf

    [...] appeared elsewhere previously. Links to other reviews and discussions: Original (longer) review: Syrup&Tang Rate this review (none)-  Loading … VN:FRate this bookplease wait… Entry by [...]

  9. DocDave

    Duncan,

    I understand where you are coming from, a properly edited book should have the correct units, appropriate grammar and vocabulary usage and such to qualify as being a quality polished product/book. And you do allude to the fact that a book is not a widget, that the editorial process should not destroy the author's voice, and produce an anonymous staid commercial copy.

    The slip-ups are certainly there (a photo of pauline's father standing in front of a stately building in bangkok is mislabeled as the american embassy when it is actually the palace compound adjacent to the Grand Palace of Thailand).

    Yet, even with these flaws, the prose works precisely due to its authenticity. By reading Pauline's prose I can hear her voice, her struggles through the Australian education system as an immigrant, her struggle to find her voice as writer. This book works for me, wouldn't have it any other way.

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