Category Archives: books

The written word, in tangible form.

Pierre Hermé’s book on macarons is now in English

I know many people come to Syrup & Tang because of macarons, so…

The most impressive book on macarons is now in English! Pierre Hermé’s 2008 French book “Macaron” is out this month in English, published by Grub Street as “Macarons”. It’s not available from all booksellers yet, but you can try these links:*










A little more info is available in the announcement on my book review site The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf, and you can also read the original review of the French version on the site here.

* These links help to support Syrup & Tang.

Beef short ribs cause ecstacy

I’m not a fan of small pieces of meat on the bone. Chopped up duck, chicken wings, ribs, bak kut teh… I’ve never enjoyed chewing modest amounts of meat off bones. For years I ignored a cut of beef – short ribs – believing it would have, well, ribs in it. Duh. In fact, the short rib cut is often sold boneless in Australia, leaving just luscious layers of very flavoursome beef and quite a bit of fat. This cut is the relatively thin layer of meat that covers the outside of the ribs of the animal on the side of the ribcage, beyond the fleshier back areas (with thicker bone) used for cuts such as Scotch fillet (rib-eye) or rib roast.

While I was working on my Where are the Good Meat Books? feature on The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf, I came across a recipe for Korean-style oven-browned short ribs in one of my favourite meat books, The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly. It sounded very tasty, so it was time to get ribbin’. The outcome was nothing short of heaven. Fatty heaven, but heaven nonetheless.

The idea is to braise rib meat with lots of garlic and ginger until tender, then roast the pieces of meat in a hot oven until they crisp a bit. I must admit that, despite making this dish four times, I’ve never done the final step. It’s just too delicious in its braised form that I didn’t bother with the final oven crisping!

You can use bone-in or boneless short ribs. Trim them of excess fat and cut into largeish mouthfuls. Pop them in a good braising pot (cast iron is great). Add lots of ginger, garlic, soy sauce and some brown sugar, spring onions (scallions) and a little vinegar or lemon juice. Add water to cover the ribs. Simmer uncovered until the meat is tender (may take two hours).

Towards the end, you’ll need to stir more frequently as the moisture evaporates and things stick a bit. The amount of fat which renders from the rib meat is considerable and means that you get that lovely rich browning that readers might know from some south-east Asian beef curries/stews. The result is a dish with a deep, aromatic savoury-sweet profile with tender chunks of meat that separates into coarse layers. Rounded off with a little sesame oil at the end of cooking, it’s fantastic.

Serve it in relatively small portions on rice. Small portions? Yes, because everyone will want seconds! I’d recommend accompanying it with clean sweet preserved vegetables (light flavours), or some fresh, lightly cooked snowpeas or buk choy or wilted spinach.

Wrap hazelnut shortbread around a whole hazelnut. Swoon.

For a few years of this decade, there was an outrageously stylish café located in the women’s fashion section of the Bon Marché department store in Paris. It was called Délicabar and the fellow in charge was pâtissier Sébastien Gaudard. I first visited it about six months after it opened, and loved the sweeping hot pink banquettes, the stark white counter, and the innovative and delicious cakes and other creations.

Delicabar seating

In 2006, three years after opening the café, a book by Gaudard hit the shelves: Sébastien Gaudard : Agitateur de goût. It looks very much like a vanity work, with the rather handsome Gaudard visage and his very blue eyes staring out at you from the cover. Inside there are many, many photos of Gaudard-with-little-dog shopping together, laughing with friends, and sometimes Gaudard by himself cooking with his team or staring meaningfully at a computer screen. But alongside all this are a wide range of recipes for some pretty delicious treats.

Alas, Gaudard and Délicabar shut up shop in November 2008, and that was that. The café space now contains some Italianesque lunchery, and Gaudard’s website is devoid of content.

Among the hits at Délicabar was the range of exquisite sablés (shortbreads), such as hazelnut, rosemary, or olive oil. Gaudard’s book reproduces some items familiar from the old menu, plus other interesting dishes. I’ve found the recipes less than reliable, but the inspiration is there.

I loved the sound of the sablés noisette à la fleur de sel (hazelnut shortbreads with fleur de sel). They are an utter bugger to make. The final result, however, is something close to nutly heaven.

The problem is that the crumbly mixture doesn’t readily adhere to the non-stick surface of a hazelnut. Moistening the surface doesn’t help. Below is the recipe, slightly modified in the hope of making them marginally less difficult to put together. If you find a further tweak that makes things easier, do tell.


240 g hazelnuts with skin
90 g butter, softened
240 g caster sugar
110 g plain flour
ca 1-1.5 tsp fleur de sel, crushed lightly

This makes about 90 balls.

Preheat the oven to 150C and then roast the nuts on a tray for about 20mins until well coloured. Take care not to burn them (the skins will blacken; it’s the nuts themselves I’m worried about).

Reserve 100 g of the hazelnuts with their skins. – (A)

Reserve another 40 g of the hazelnuts with their skins – (B)

Remove the skins of the remaining 100 g of hazelnuts by rubbing the nuts between your hands or in a tea-towel. – (C)

Allow the nuts to cool completely before proceeding.

Grind hazelnuts (A) to a powder. Take care not to work them too much (or two fast) or you’ll end up with an oily paste. Not a disaster, but a bit messier.

Crush hazelnuts (B) to small pieces.

Mix butter, sugar, hazelnuts (A) and flour together. Add hazelnuts (B) and salt to taste (the mixture is quite sweet but should have the tingle of hidden salt crystals). The final texture of the mixture should be a bit like a pâte sablée (crumbly shortcrust pastry). It won’t hold together well. Chill for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 160C.

Make small balls of the sablé with a whole hazelnut (C) in the centre. This isn’t easy, as the mixture doesn’t like to hold together. I find cupping my hand and applying a lot of pressure to the mixture helps keep it firm enough while encasing a hazelnut. You might also like to try scooping up some of the mixture in a measuring teaspoon, pressing a hazelnut into it, then packing more mixture on top and then knocking the whole thing into your hand for a final squeeze. I promise frustration and occasional despair, and perhaps a little boredom.

Place the balls on baking paper on a tray. Bake the whole batch for 10-15mins, until they’ve developed a little colour.


They keep very well in a sealed container (assuming you and everyone around you don’t gobble them up in an instant).

This article was prompted by the loud moans of pleasure from Hannah, Kaye and Kelly (assisted by milder expressions of delight from a number of other lovely people).

Latest reviews on The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf

A quick post to tell you that The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf has added a number of reviews in the last six weeks.

We hope you enjoy them! If you have a book you love (or loathe) why not join in by writing a review? (Click here for more info)

Review: Eating Between the Lines, by Rebecca Huntley

Eating Between the Lines has received a bit of media attention since its publication recently. I heard an interview with the author, Rebecca Huntley, on ABC Radio National and found the discussion interesting. I decided I should read the book, and then Neil over at At My Table wrote a great review that increased my interest further. You should read it.

I’ve now worked my way through the book and as you’ll read below, I wasn’t impressed.

Summary review

Eating Between the Lines claims to be “A different kind of food tour” and sociologist Rebecca Huntley certainly takes the readers on a journey. The book is a series of discreet chapters exploring aspects of food culture in Australia. From the subtitle of the book, “Food & Equality in Australia”, you might expect the focus to be on poverty, access to food, and perhaps the ability to cook. In fact, Huntley ranges over these themes and adds a sociopolitical agenda involving gender roles, racism, Slow Food and more. At times, the reader might feel that the author lacks much insight into deeper cultural and historical issues, leaving her argumentation a little popular-conscience rather than achieving insightful examination. Nonetheless, many interesting pieces of information come out of the interviews and stories and the footnotes are interesting. I found Eating Between the Lines very irritating, but it’s well written and designed to hit the right “how terrible” buttons with certain types of readers. Huntley might, however, have cast her net a bit too wide, because there are enough touches of sneering through the book that she might well offend even some of her target audience.

The structure of the book

The introduction paints a picture of inner-urban living with access to many food options in opposition to a decaying suburban environment with limited choice, most of it unhealthy. The author asks “how fair is Australia’s food culture?”. She then ventures into the contrast between a wealth of television chefs cooking fancy food and the supposed realities of eating/cooking in the normal population, using obesity, other writers’ commentary about British food, and some data about purchasing habits to get the ball rolling. Each of the next nine chapters covers an issue that Huntley feels is relevant: poverty and bad eating, child obesity, domestic cooking, men not cooking, single people and food, indigenous food and social disadvantage, ethnic food and racism, local food, ethical/rich-people food trends. Huntley concludes with an honestly ideological position about food, equality, empowerment, access and more.

The author

Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher, director of the Ipsos Mackay Report on social trends, and writes for Vogue Australia.

What is particularly good/interesting/new/special?

Eating Between the Lines serves as a window on food issues in Australia (and the rich world more generally) in the mid-2000s. That’s probably its greatest value. Its timing was good, though might have been even more interesting if written after consumers began to react to the global economic problems (that’s life).

The book is well written and stimulates readers to think, but because the author is quite definitely writing to an (at least loosely) pre-determined agenda, its value isn’t really as an objective assessment of issues unless you read between the lines of Huntley’s own perspective. The footnotes and bibliography are valuable inclusions which will give interested readers more paths to explore.

Huntley interprets “equality” more broadly than some readers might expect (extending it to food choices, urban sprawl driving out local agriculture, and more). This comes as a surprise as the book develops, and at times I really wondered how chapters were meant to relate to the overarching theme and the neighbouring chapters. Certainly, Huntley covers a range of interesting topics and illuminates many issues which are worth attention, sometimes very skillfully, but it’s difficult to work them all into a coherent thesis.

The author makes some interesting points, such as “If Jamie [Oliver] wants to encourage more family meals, why doesn’t he criticise those fathers who won’t shop, cook and clean for their families?”, raising the tricky issue of whether indigenous foods should be part of mainstream Australia’s diet, reminding us that food is about sustenance for many people, and highlighting the gulf between the dietary/cooking habits of the rich/empowered and other parts of the population.

What flaws/problems are there?

This book reeks of “I know what I think and I’ll paint you a picture that shows I’m right”. There are certainly many valuable points made and examples given. But Huntley seems to disrespect some of her subjects, sometimes moments after describing their plight or using their situation to prove a positive point.

On many occasions, Eating Between the Lines presents arguments based on nothing more than uninformed conjecture. There’s little serious data, but lots of social commentary to support more social commentary. Huntley is too comfortable generalising beyond her experience. Even the introduction shows a willingness to poo-poo something that doesn’t suit her: she provides a secondhand quote of London-based Australian reviewer Terry Durack saying “I grew up in a country where good food was available to all at a good price”. Huntley then writes “… I don’t believe we can be confident of the truth of Durack’s claim that good food is available to all Australians at a good price. Not all of us live in a lucky eating country. And the top-class food familiar to critics like Durack is not the kind of food the vast majority of Australians have the time, money or opportunity to enjoy.”

Excuse me for being blunt, but that’s just rank ignorance. If Huntley understood something about relative costs and quality of food historically (and now) between different rich-world countries she would hopefully have been more careful in dismissing Durack’s statement. The vast majority of Australians have had much better access to good, affordable basic produce than most people in many comparable countries for many decades (and Durack was writing about when he grew up). That doesn’t mean the same degree of access across the population (and has to exclude people living in extreme poverty and/or isolation) or that it applies to every type of produce in every place. But Huntley’s rejection of Durack’s slightly-too-broad statement is symptomatic of an impaired openness to different experience or possibilities.

Some readers will quickly tire of the author’s cynical depiction of men as kitchen chauvinists who can’t cook, won’t cook, or get treated with kid gloves when they do manage to step into the kitchen. I don’t for a moment deny that the vast majority of men don’t do much/any domestic cooking. It’s likely that it’s primarily because of established gender roles being perpetuated/enforced by various parties, including the men themselves. But Huntley dwells on men not cooking, or only learning to cook because of necessity, with limited consideration of other factors. I found it offensive personally, and on behalf of those men who do cook as part of their normal domestic roles. Huntley isn’t scared of moments of passing chauvinism about men, gay cooks, women in commercial kitchens, fat people, and more.

I could write much more on the flaws (I’ve bookmarked about 20 examples of particularly irritating stuff), but I think you get the idea. I’ll finish with one vaguely amusing example:

In the chapter called Basic Meals for the Ultra Rich, Huntley simultaneously derides people shopping at farmers’ markets (“Sucker prepared to spend a lot of money on not a lot of food.”) while admitting she’s one of them too. To prove how expensive it is she presents a short shopping list. This includes a bag of organic apples for A$5, half a kilo of organic coffee for $11.50 and two organic lamb shanks for $8. How strange that the coffee is actually cheap, the apples are only a little pricey (assuming it’s a kilo bag), and the lamb shanks are about the same for most Australians paying typical (non-market) silly prices ($3-4) for any shanks. She didn’t even get her “here’s proof” shopping list right. I’m sure many readers could have done better.

Target audience

Oh, this will appeal to all sorts of people riding the food-consciousness wave. Ironically, the ones who’ll probably like it most are the “Bobos” that Huntley describes and sneers so effectively at in the chapter mentioned above (though they might not like it if they make it to that chapter). It’s perhaps worth reading to make you think, but not necessarily because it’ll enlighten you.

As you can imagine, not everyone shares my perspective on this book. In addition to Neil’s review mentioned at the top of the review, you could also consider this and this.

ISBN 978-1-86395-263-7 – Black Inc.

Review: Maggie’s Harvest, by Maggie Beer

cover of book

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. This is a stunning production imbued with the personality of the author, local context, and an appealing warmth, packaged with style and a sense of understanding of the author’s values.

pattern detail

Maggie Beer, one of the three modern icons of Australian food (the others being Gay Bilson and Stephanie Alexander), has written a book to weigh down your lap as you browse, read and cook from its pages. It’s a hefty tome, similar in size to Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion, though marginally thinner. The padded fabric cover is beautifully embroidered (!) with the image of a tree laden with fruit, presumably evoking the grand old pear tree Beer writes about on her property (farm), even though the fruit don’t seem to be pears…. A lone pheasant sits on the end of one bough — a reference to Beer’s Pheasant Farm Restaurant in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, which closed in 1993. Unusually, the book has been printed on good weight, smooth, cream coloured paper. Most cookbooks on the market using cream or yellow paper come from North America, using stock that is often rough and cheap, not lending itself to photographs. Maggie’s Harvest features numerous colour pictures, even though this is not the typical, glossy paper for colour book images. Following the increasing trend of printing pictures onto matte stock (Movida, Secrets of the Red Lantern, Jamie at Home), this book takes things one better: the quality of paper is good enough to produce wonderfully vibrant, slightly contrasty colour images. And even better, many of these images capture the essence of Australian rural life.

apricots excerpt

Maggie’s Harvest is, in keeping with the author’s own philosophy and the prevailing food ideology, organised by season. And in what feels quite Australian, it starts with summer and ends with spring (take that you northern hemispherics!). Within each season are entries for a range of ingredients (22-26 in each), with one exception: Christmas gets a special mention, and tasty it is too! And for each ingredient section there’s a large dose of enjoyable narrative, culinary knowledge and a handful of recipes. I’m often a little sceptical about books which organise by season or ingredient because they can end up as a mish-mash of insipid blurbs about this or that followed by illustrative recipes. That is not Maggie’s Harvest.

partridge excerpt

First I read about anchovies, then I became immersed in the apricots. I extracted myself only to fall headlong into the capers and capsicums. And here and there are memories and experiences which will resonate with many readers, Australian by birth or by adoption. My heart thumped a little harder when i saw sections on loquats (nespoli) (childhood backyard), quandongs (Aeroplane jelly!), kangaroo (abandon beef; eat Skippy!) and crabapples (Mum’s jelly). That’s not to say that overseas readers would find it too parochial — the wisdom about ingredients and cooking to be gleaned from the book is immense. Cultural enlightenment is an added bonus.

Maggie Beer has achieved something quite enviable. She tells stories, reminisces, mentions friends and shares enthusiasms all without developing the rather supercilious or pretentious tone that others often do (I mention no names!). There’s no self-aggrandising and it’s written with an air of warmth and openness which just pulls the reader in. This is not a book you can skim through.

Come Christmas, I can see many a scrawny pine tree or glowing fibre-optic masterpiece with a Maggie’s Harvest nestled beneath it. Perhaps it will still be sleeping in the brown paper it comes wrapped in from the publishers (the fabric is wont to mark, alas), but hopefully not the tacky shrinkwrap that some booksellers have been suffocating it in.

I’ve been reading Maggie’s Harvest for the last three days and haven’t yet found a flaw (except for the very occasional mention of her own products which I find a little irritating). Unlike the last book I reviewed, the text is literate, strong and flowing, and Beer acknowledges the work of her editors in shaping this wonderful book. At the risk of exhausting you with one last burst of effusive gush, this is what a good book about food and cooking can be!

Maggie’s Harvest is published by Penguin Books (under the Lantern imprint). 736pp. ISBN-13: 9781920989545. RRP A$125.

bottom of cover

Phew, I’m all worn out by this positive energy. Like my review of Interlude (restaurant), I’m just not recognising myself anymore!

– DM

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.


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


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