Red Lantern Whispers


Pauline Nguyen is a remarkable woman. A refugee, runaway, restaurateur, and now a writer. If you’ve yet to come across her book “Secrets of the Red Lantern”, then stop reading my drivel now and go find a copy. It’s an inspiring and emotional story of Pauline’s family history and the importance and significance of food to help overcome issues of displacement and as a form of healing to sooth the pain of isolation.

Woven throughout the beautiful fabric of the book, are most wonderful recipes for dishes that should inspire even the most stingy of cooks to embrace the freshness and herb loving decadence that is Vietnamese food.

Pauline of course runs Red Lantern restaurant in Surrey Hills (that’s Sydney sorry folks), with her partner Mark Jensen and brother Luke who look after the kitchen, and introduce and explain the recipes for the book.

Sharon and I were lucky enough to meet Pauline during the Perth Writers Festival, and even luckier to share a meal at a local Vietnamese restaurant with her. Carefully observing and absorbing as much as we could to gain as much valuable insight into what makes great Vietnamese food, or more importantly, what makes bad Vietnamese food.

From what I can gather, it’s all about freshness of ingredients, abundance of flavours, and an intermingling of textures. Many dishes are packed full of fresh herbs, with tangy dipping sauces, and a mixture of textures at all stages of the crunch spectrum.

Prep for vermicelli salad

My first few efforts at making things from the book have been interesting… There were some severely dodgy looking rice paper spring rolls, and my nuoc cham is gradually becoming quite decent. I’m yet to get into vegetable pickling, but that can’t be far off either.

My one of instant favourites however has been the simple yet very satisfying Bun Bo Xao (I looked for the special characters and couldn’t find them).

Bun Bo Xao

It’s a simple dish made by stir frying thinly sliced beef marinated in fish sauce, with some lemon grass and onion, and serving it over the top of a rice vermicelli salad, with lots of fresh mint and perilla (if you can find it). Then a good splashing of nuoc cham over the top, and you’ve got an excellent all purpose dish for a quick lunch or lazy dinner.

Thanks must go to Pauline for her inspiring book, and for just being a genuinely cool person to hang out with :)

8 thoughts on “Red Lantern Whispers”

  1. Oh cool! And yum!

    My friend took me to see The Moth last week, part of the Writer’s Festival. This is an urban storytelling organisation from New York, but the storytellers come from everywhere, and this was their first ‘gig’ outside of the US.
    Anyway, Pauline was one of the 5 storytellers, and it was story related to the story of the book really, maybe even a summary of it in some way (I haven’t read the book, I should). Obviously very emotional(I cried..), but also often funny. The other stories were also mostly very funny and occasionally emotional. Anyway, just felt like sharing that. It was a great night!
    If anyone’s interested,

  2. That looks so yummy!!! Vietnamese food is one of those things I love to eat but feel is more work to make than to go buy =X Most Asian cuisine, actually. Lovely pictures as always… oh, and I love “bun”!

  3. Cheers guys…

    Simone, I didn’t get to The Moth, tickets were sold out before I even knew about it. Though talking to Pauline it sounded like it went really well, and I have no doubt she would have give a very touching and compelling story telling. You weren’t the only one crying :)

    Yvo, I almost think the opposite… Vietnamese food (well some of it anyway) looks really approachable and uncomplicated to cook, as long as you’re willing to seek out some really fresh ingredients. I love bún too :)

    Linda: Thanks sò múch :)

  4. All the chopping and prep work- meanwhile I can run to my local and favorite Vietnamese restaurant to have the best pho for about $5 US, or bun for $4.75 US. Weighing out the pros and cons… ;)

  5. If you love vietnamese food, have a look at the recipes from the Vietnamese episode on SBS food safaris.

    There is a red lantern recipe for Caramelised Fish in Claypot – (Cá Kho Tô.) and the Braised Pork with Egg and Coconut Juice (Thit Heo Kho) (from another restaurant) is fantastic.

  6. I received a copy of Pauline’s book ‘The secrets of the red lantern.’ as one of the presents from close girl friends who know I love cooking for friends and family. What a fabulous book from the heart. a wonderful story beutifully told with all the recipes.
    Thankyou Pauline for the gift of your book, the inspirational story and your generousity re the recipes therin. Karen Genoff Adelaide artist.

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