Secrets of the Red Lantern

By Pauline Nguyen with recipes by Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen

A book review by Franz Scheurer


The Nguyen family were one of many who escaped Vietnam not long after the pointless war. They spent a long year in a Thai refugee camp before finally arriving in Australia and settling in Cabramatta. Their children, Pauline and Luke, grew up there, kept under strict control by authoritarian parents who ran a busy Vietnamese restaurant. It was this familiarity with the hubbub of a restaurant that eventually called both of them back to open Red Lantern, one of Sydney’s most popular Vietnamese restaurants. They couldn’t have done it though without the culinary help of their parents and the professionalism of Pauline’s partner, chef Mark Jensen.


Vietnamese cuisine is based on lots of fresh herbs and ingredients such as green onion oil, crisp-fried onion and garlic, roasted rice powder, crushed peanuts, pickled vegetables and, of course, nuoc mam cham (fish sauce) the Vietnamese condiment of choice.


Now the Secrets of the Red Lantern are revealed in a book that is as much the story of the Nguyen family as it is a cookbook, with chapter headings:

Shin, bones and the basics

My mother and her mother

The oceans of uncertainty

The three big mistakes

The chinks in his armour

Pho cay du

The missing years

Red is for reconciliation

Red is for seminal

Red is for life


Each section progressively gives more of an insight into the Nguyen psyche. Whilst riding the emotional roller coaster of their life, the reader is treated to a collection of terrific recipes (I particularly love the goat curry recipe, Cà Ri Dê, on page 22).


I am extremely pleased to read the accolades Pauline and Luke give to the professionalism of chef Mark Jensen, who, before helping to open Red Lantern, ran the Olympic Hotel dining room out of a matchbox-like kitchen with just two apprentices. Pauline and Luke both worked there to earn extra money for their own, upcoming restaurant.  I actually had my buck’s party there back in 2000 and Mark did an amazing job.


The food in Secrets of the Red Lantern is achievable, fresh, spicy and different. Try their unusual take on the ubiquitous ‘salt and pepper squid’ or ‘salt and pepper prawns’ on pages 334 and 335 and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. It’s a book that gives readers the chance to learn about the history and culinary heritage of Vietnam and the living history of the Nguyen family as well as being a reference to cook from. A terrific book, worth cherishing and worth using!


The book will be available as of October 2007 for a RRP $ 59.95

Published by Murdoch Books Australia

ISBN 978 1 74045 904 4