Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cookbook Obsession: “Secrets of the Red Lantern”

Southern Vietnamese Fish Cakes
 About once a year a cookbook comes my way that for a period is the object of my culinary obsession.  The latest, “Secrets of the Red Lantern”, arrived a few weeks back via Amazon, a gift from a friend halfway around the world. 

For a cookbook to captivate me, it must add something novel to my kitchen repertoire.  And no, I’m not talking about “50 Ways with Mac N Cheese”, or “Halfway Homemade with Packaged Foods”.  A good cookbook will teach me.  It might teach me technique, as in the case of Jennifer McLagan’s book “Bones” which continues to provide everything I might want to know about cooking meat on the bone.  Or, more often these days, the book goes deep into a particular cuisine of which I have only some familiarity but a lot of curiosity. 

“Secrets of the Red Lantern” is a bit of a hybrid book.  Two parts family history, one part recipes, it is Pauline Nguyen’s story of her family’s flight from Vietnam and settlement in Australia told in words, pictures, and food. 

Tom Rim- Shrimp in Tomato Sauce
This is not the sort of book you take down all in one sitting.  But it is beautiful enough to take a place on the coffee table allowing me to dip in a dip out to read tales of Pauline and her brother Luke’s childhood, drool over the beautiful pictures of some of the favorite family dishes, and dream up which recipe I wish to try out next.

Favorites so far have included Luke’s recreation of one of his mom’s signature dishes at his parents’ restaurant opened when they resettled in Australia.  Tôm Rim, shrimp sautéed with tomato, fish sauce, and black pepper, was assembled with ingredients I can find these days at any American supermarket- tomato paste, shrimp, fish sauce, cilantro.  But the wide range and nuance of flavors from sweet to spicy to tart to bitter, were pure Vietnam.

These days Pauline along with Luke and Mark Jensen, her partner in life and love, make up the team behind the popular Sydney restaurant Red Lantern.  In addition to sharing family recipes these three also manage to break down some better-known Vietnamese dishes into step-by-step instructions simple enough to replicate at home.  Fish cakes, one of my favorite Vietnamese appetizers, appear shockingly easy in this book.  Even though the recipe can be done entirely in the food processor, I took the chef’s recommendation to work the fish sauce into the paste of mackerel, garlic, and green onion by hand.  The work was tough but satisfying.  I could see and feel the texture change to the non-sticky consistency described in the book that signals it is ready to form into cakes and fry. 

Pauline writes in reference to the name of their restaurant, “To raise a red lantern outside your home is a symbol of honoring good company.”  I don’t know when I will have the pleasure of visiting Sydney, but until I do “Secrets of the Red Lantern” is poised to keep me excellent company in the kitchen for sometime to come.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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