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.
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).
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 :)