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Friday, October 23, 2009

Interview: Ten Questions with Luke Nguyen (and another Freebie Friday!)

Luke Nguyen

The night before Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Tour, I read Secrets of the Red Lantern, written by Luke's sister, Pauline.

As Pauline unravelled the threads of her family story, there was one anecdote that immediately leapt off the pages, making me smile. It was her description of her younger brother Luke as a kid...

It came as no surprise to any of us when Luke told of his plans for Red Lantern. For as long as I can remember, he has always dreamed of opening his own establishment. Whilst Lewis and I pursued other careers, the art of hospitality is all that Luke has ever known. It is in his blood.

Merely to watch Luke work is to die a little. At the age of four he was already dashing around like an efficient midget, cleaning ashtrays, wiping tables and taking orders. While Lewis and I worked for my parents simply because we had no choice, Luke performed all his duties with genuine enthusiasm and an unceasing ‘can do’ attitude.

I can still picture him, carefully carrying individual cups of coffee to the customers with both hands, taking tiny steps with the focus of a tightrope walker, making sure not to spill a single drop. When the bowls of noodle soup went out, he would remind his customers in his authoritative little mean voice to "…eat slowly, and be careful, don’t burn your tongue."

Of course, all the regulars loved him. He was their little star and he knew it.

All around the restaurant, Luke liked to think of himself as a speed demon.

"Bread…" he would coach me, "…should arrive to the customer as quick as Flash Gordon."

"Oh yeah? Why’s that?" I humoured him.

"So that it’s still as hot and crusty as possible."

"Oh really? Why’s that?"

With great annoyance he would sigh, "It is the only way."

- from Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen

It's obvious when you meet Luke in the flesh that his passion for food is still just as strong. These days he's a restauranteur, a cookbook author and gracing our tv screens in the new SBS series Luke Nguyen's Vietnam.

I was keen to find out more about the affable Luke and he was happy to oblige. He even dug out some kiddie photos from the family photo album!

Ten Questions with Luke Nguyen

1. I loved your sister’s description of you in the passage above from Secrets of the Red Lantern. Is this how you remember your childhood and what it was like working in your parents’ restaurants? And does the Flash Gordon reference mean you were a keen fan?

I worked at my family restaurant every day - before school, after school and even during school holidays. In this description I was must have been only 10 or 12 years old - most of the guests had watched me grow up, they were all family to me, so I actually enjoyed looking after them. It was a very busy little place so I had to work fast, zipping around like ‘Flash Gordon’. I watched the cartoons but I didn’t have his comics.

2. Can you remember the first dish you learned how to cook?

Pho was the first dish I was taught to cook. It's a medicinal beef broth served with rice noodles and fine slices of beef sirloin and brisket.

I was 10, standing on a blue milk crate watching over dad’s huge 200 litre pot of beef broth. I would stand there skimming for hours, making sure it was clean and clear. Once I achieved that, I was eventually shown what secret spices and Chinese medicinal herbs went in tothe spice bag – it was all very hush hush.

3. Is there a food or smell that instantly transports you back to your childhood?

Definitely slow braised baby goat cooked in a delicate turmeric curry. My parents would have this cooking for around 6 hours, allowing the goat meat to just slide off the bone. The aroma of curry leaves and dry spices makes me feel like a youngster again.

Can you spot the young Luke Nguyen?

4. What was a typical packed lunch for you when you were a kid?

Mum used to give us kids a tiered Asian lunch box – which was made out of stainless steel and had four levels. There was a tier of rice, a soup of Asian greens, a tier with a braised meat dish and the last, a salad. I was always quite embarrassed carrying this shiny tall lunch box to school as everyone else had a simple sandwich and Doritos, but looking back now as an adult - it was pretty cool!

I still have the same lunch box from school. I bring it out for picnics and when not in use, I store varieties of tea in it.

5. What inspired you to write The Songs of Sapa? Did you have a clear idea from the start?

My family is from the south of Vietnam, so I am familiar with all the southern dishes. However I wanted to explore the rest of the country and learn more about the diverse cuisine that each region in Vietnam has to offer.

I headed off on a research trip with my partner, Suzanna, who took beautiful photos to go with my recipes and stories. I got to meet amazing locals, make new friends, discover age old recipes, and share it with the rest of the world through a book.

Luke's mum with copies of his new book The Songs of Sapa

6. How did the series Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam come about? Were the TV series and the book created concurrently during your visits to Vietnam? How many days did you spend in Vietnam to create the book and the series?

The series came about after I had completed the book. The book was so vibrant, colourful, and raw and showed the real Vietnam. It only made sense to follow it with a cooking travel series through Vietnam to allow viewers to experience it through their tv screens.

I spent 2 months researching and documenting recipes for The Songs of Sapa and I spent 9 weeks with a crew of 12 filming Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam.

7. Your father, Lap Nguyen, has been quoted as saying “Luke was born and grew up abroad so he doesn’t understand thoroughly about Vietnam. We have returned to Vietnam to help him.”

How much of a help or a hindrance were your parents on your trips?!

My parents played a huge role in the making of the series. They introduced me to family members I had never met, introduced ingredients that were foreign to me, bought produce for my recipes, and acted as interpreters to the crew. They were parents to everyone working on the project.

And yes there were days where they would drive me insane – but that’s what parents do.

Luke Nguyen with his parents

8. What’s your favourite recipe from The Songs of Sapa and why?

Favorite recipe would have to be the ‘crisp silken tofu in black pepper sauce’. I was in Sapa in the northern mountains of Vietnam, searching for ‘the tofu maker’. I finally tracked him down and we arranged for me to come back early the next morning and for me to be his apprentice for the day.

Never before had I made tofu from scratch. We soaked the soy beans, crushed it and squeezed out all the juice. We cooked it in a pot - heated by a fire made from sticks - by bringing it to the boil, adding natural coagulant, pressing it and then cutting it to form steaming hot silken tofu which is sold straight to the markets.

I sat there as the sun was rising, sipping on hot soy milk and eating handmade tofu for breakfast. It was very memorable.

9. What dish do you crave when you're sick?

Bitter melon soup with minced pork, as bitter melon is a ‘cooling’ vegetable and refreshing for my body.

10. What's the ideal breakfast you'd want to wake up to?

A big bowl of pho – with the lot! Rice noodles, raw sirloin, brisket, tripe, tendon and beef balls.

And yes, indeedy, we have a freebie! Don't you love a Freebie Friday?

One copy of Luke Nguyen's new cook book The Songs of Sapa (recommended retail price AU$70.00).

Please note this competition is open to Australian and New Zealand residents only.

All you have to do is:
  1. Leave a comment on this post and tell us "what was a typical packed lunch for you when you were a kid?"
  2. Send an email to grabyourforksapacomp@yahoo.com.au and include your full name and a copy of your comment on this post.
The Songs of Sapa Freebie Friday competition closes on Friday 13/11/09 at 5.30pm AEST. The winner will be announced on Grab Your Fork on Monday 16/11/09.

The winner will be chosen on the basis of entertainment value and/or sheer honesty. Judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.


Don't forget you still have time to enter the Grab Your Fork Secret Recipe competition to win $200 worth of kitchenware. Entries close 31/10/09. Enter now.

And Grab Your Fork will be a little quiet for about a week as I'm jetting off to Singapore for the Nuffnang Asia-Pacific Blog Awards. I'll be attending as a guest (thanks to Suze winning two tickets with this post - thanks Suze!) and cheering on Aussie food blog finalists Eat Show & Tell.

See you all soon!

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Luke Nguyen's Cabramatta Food Tour
(now updated with shop names and details of Luke's personal recommendations)

Luke Nguyen's caramelised pork belly recipe
Luke Nguyen's Canh Chua tamarind soup and silver perch recipe

Ten Questions with Curtis Stone
Ten Questions with Matthew Evans
Ten Questions with Poh Ling Yeow
Ten Questions with Chubby Hubby
50 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 10/23/2009 12:19:00 am


  • At 10/23/2009 12:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ooh interesting interview! Craving pho very much so now though haha
    Hee hee I wish more restaurants had a little Luke to serve hot and crusty bread!

  • At 10/23/2009 1:55 am, Blogger Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    Ironically my mom use to pack me plain old Aussie type lunches - sandwiches, fruit, cereal in a little plastic bag, juice boxes and it was I who envied all the other Asian kids who had fried rice or noodles or little char siu pows for lunch! In turn they envied me for having 'Westernised' parents who'd pack me food that didn't make the other Aussie kids raise their eyebrows!

    I actually wished that my parents would give me cold fried rice instead of sandwiches.

  • At 10/23/2009 7:48 am, Anonymous Chris said…

    A packed lunch for me as a kid varied a lot dependent on my mood - but ranged from pork liver pate sandwiches (much to raised eyebrows of my friends) to 'accidentally' *ahem* dropping whatever I didn't want on the ground, usually jaffles with leftovers. Shhhh you didn't hear it from me! I was a bad kid...but a foodie in the making ;)

  • At 10/23/2009 9:48 am, Anonymous mel said…

    For lunch my mum packed in my pink rectangle lunch box:
    packet of smiths chips and a little water bottle and shredded chicken and leafy lettuce for my sandwich cut diagonally down so its easier for me to pick it up and eat.

  • At 10/23/2009 9:48 am, Blogger A Girl Called E said…

    My dad love, love, lovesss to cook and tries recipes from pretty much everywhere. So although I don't have any interesting cultural heritage, dad still managed to make sure I always had an out of the ordinary packed lunch.
    He used to cook up the most aromatic meatballs laced with tummeric and cumin and just opening my backpack would see the smell seep into the classroom. It actually smelt delicious, but as an awkward 13 year old I was so embarrassed!

    Not to mention I used to have those porcelain braces so one bite and that tummeric had stained them a bright yellow! Not a great look...!

    Mum used to give me the more normal lunches which always included a poppa that would infalliably pop un my bag and ruin my school books :)

  • At 10/23/2009 9:59 am, Anonymous Fiona said…

    My typical packed lunch was a vagemite sandwhich, a banana or apple, and a frozen popper. How skippy ;)

  • At 10/23/2009 11:40 am, Anonymous Michaela said…

    I used to get salami and home made bread wrapped in grease proof paper. Although we were anglo aussies, this was also an embarrasing lunch as others brough white sliced bread in rainbow wrapping. Of course, just like Luke I realise how cool my lunch was now!

  • At 10/23/2009 11:49 am, Blogger curiousbutton said…

    My Mum was an early health food fan so my typical packed lunch was ready-sliced brown bread sandwiches with no-sugar peanut butter, home-grown apples and, if I was lucky, whole-grain crisps & sesame snaps. I didn't enjoy much of it but could never get anyone to exchange their white bread sandwiches and chocolate bars and in middle England 20 years ago no-one brought anything else.

    Two decades on and I rarely eat the white bread I craved then, find normal peanut butter too sweet, love whole-grain crisps and sesame snaps and will go out of my way to find home-grown apples... maybe Mum was right...

    (Although I'm getting very hungry with these descriptions of packed lunches with curries & rice and noodles... my international food education could have started so much younger!)

  • At 10/23/2009 12:45 pm, Anonymous clekitty said…

    My father was very much aware of how mean little kids can be. So he gave us English first names and he packed us "normal" lunches so we would blend in a bit more. This consisted of sandwiches, fruit, yoghurt.

    However, there would always be something asian. It was usually haw flakes. It was awesome, haw flakes were loved by everyone else at school and I could swap it for chips :D My dad once packed picled daikon (white radish) into my sandwich and it stank up the bag room I was so embarrassed because no one else could recognise the smell except me! (Everyone else thought it was garbage smell!) I ate my lunch by myself at the field that day. I told my dad never ever to put daikon into my sandwich in case the teacher did a sniff test of each bag!

  • At 10/23/2009 2:00 pm, Anonymous Jen said…

    My usual packed lunch was always last nights leftovers. Being asian, that always meant rice and some sort of stir fry or noodle dish. I hated it! All i wanted was a vegemite and cheese sandwhich :P

  • At 10/23/2009 2:51 pm, Anonymous Alexandra said…

    Argh been trying to save up for this book!
    My lunches were quite boring, typical Aussie country lunch. But like Luke I envied the other students with their packets of chips, rollups and those snacks that are little biscuits which u then dipped in nutella or the like. But looking back I'm glad I had healthier lunches; salad rolls and fruit from my uncle's orchard.

  • At 10/23/2009 3:18 pm, Blogger KT said…

    Great interview Helen! I'm going to Red Lantern for dinner tomorrow night, so it's very timely...

    As a child I only ate one type of sandwich - honey and peanut butter on white bread. I still love it to this day. The sandwiches were pretty soggy by lunchtime! My lunchbox also contained a Popper and an apple.

  • At 10/23/2009 3:36 pm, Anonymous Nicole said…

    We took sandwiches but it was always with some smelly filling such as chorizo, tongue or sardines!

  • At 10/23/2009 8:49 pm, Anonymous Amanda said…

    A bologna sandwich, some potato chips and an apple.

  • At 10/24/2009 4:18 pm, Anonymous Josette said…

    I was the only child at school with salami sandwiches with a 'bear' cut out. Mum used a cookie cutter, i was so embarassed then but now i think back and little things like this probably turned me into the foodie that i am.

  • At 10/24/2009 4:21 pm, Blogger Anna (Morsels and Musings) said…

    While the Italian and Vietnamese kids envied sandwiches and roll ups, I was coveting their pasta bowls and thermoses of spicy soup!
    I had two working parents with no time. Everyday I’d order from the canteen and watch my friends with “food envy” as they ate, what I believed to be, lovingly made lunches.
    It just before Hong Kong merged back with China and every day more and more middle class HK families, concerned about the communist takeover, would migrate to Australia. My primary school had a significantly high percentage of recent migrants and I took particular interest in a small group of girls who couldn’t speak a word of English.
    One day, when I sat with my boring canteen sandwiches, each girl quietly placed a small container in front of me. They opened each one to show items like fried rice, steamed vegetables in soy sauce, hot chicken broth and spicy pork. They kept handing me chopsticks and motioning at the small bowls with big grins on their faces.
    In the end, another kid managed to translate that they appreciated me trying to help them in their new country. They’d seen the terrible cold sandwiches I ate every day and noticed how much I’d looked at their food. As a thank you, they decided to bring me a decent lunch.
    Looking back, it’s funny to realise they thought sandwiches were a form of child abuse, but with delicious Chinese food on offer, I wasn’t going to convince them otherwise.
    Good food translates into any language.

  • At 10/24/2009 7:02 pm, Anonymous lance said…

    I really liked Anna's post from above.

    I'm an Australian born Chinese kid in a blended family. Aussie Dad would make the devon or compressed chicken sandwiches with good old Kraft singles cheese (i never knew cheese came otherwise) which i really enjoyed but Friday was the best of all as at Primary school where for 20c you could buy a sausage roll or for 50c a pie (1986 prices!).

  • At 10/24/2009 11:15 pm, Anonymous Vanessa said…

    when we first moved to australia from malaysia in the 80s, my mother was very conscious about making us feel like we fit in with the "aussie" kids - so she packed us party pies and sausage rolls for lunch! you can imagine how jealous the other kids in class were!

    unfortunately this only lasted about 6 months until she found out sandwiches were more typical. we then suffered through another 6 months of "questionable" sandwich fillings (e.g. fish fingers, tinned sardines, omelette) before she discovered the more usual sandwich fillings of ham, tuna and chicken!

    i don't know if what followed was better or worse - for my remaining school years (6 of them) every lunchtime alternated unfailingly between ham+lettuce on white, tuna+lettuce on white, and chicken+lettuce on white. even now i still can't stomach any of those combos :-/

    looking back, it seems so funny and almost surreal, but heartening to realise my mother's love for us in the lunches she prepared each day.

  • At 10/25/2009 11:46 pm, Anonymous MCAT said…

    Very interesting.. I have more appreciation for Vietnamese food now. I hope there was such an authentic and passionate shop here in Brisbane. The ones here arent bad but I get so thirsty after a bowl of pho.. I can feel my body reacting to the MSG content. Anyhow, I have to make another trip down to Sydney soon to check out Cabramatta.

    My memories of school lunch. I moved to America when I was 9 years old. I was one of the few Asians in this well to do suburban elementray school in Connecticut USA. Within the few Asians, I was the only to have my mom. My mom was (and still is) an avid foodie and health freak. Never accepted American fare to be worthy enough as a nutritious lunch. She didnt care about her son's first day in school and the importance of blending in, she just packed the traditional lunch for a Japanese school kid.

    So there were 3 types of lunches in our school. 1, the cafeteria food, the dream lunch for me. (I craved for the day my mom slept in or got sick and gave me the one dollar note and dime to buy lunch. My favorite was the bbq pork rib sandwich.) 2, bagged sandwiches kids brought from home with a side of potato chips with an occassional piece of fruit. These kids usually brought a yummy looking artificial fruit drink called Capri Sun or purchased chocolate milk at the cafeteria for 25 cents. And then there was option number 3, my usual lunch, The rice ball or "onigiri" along with a fruit and a brick pack of 100% juice.

    Onigiri is the typical lunch for all Japanese. My mom puts some water and salt on her hand and squeezes the rice to form a ball. There would be something in the middle. The usual suspects are salty pickled plum "umeboshi", dried fish flakes with soy "okaka", broiled salmon "shake", or my favorite, "tarako" the salted cod roe, or "mentaiko" the chilli version. The rice ball would be wrapped in seaweed, then wrapped in foil in my lunch bag.

    Although I dreamed always of eating the hot cafeteria lunch, I didnt really feel envious of the other kids plain cold ham sandwiches as my onigiri wasn't half bad. I did have lots of spectators watch me eat for the first couple of weeks. Some were even thoughtful enough to make their way over and exclaim, "yuck, you actually eat seaweed!?" There was however a Jewish kid who was somehow very curious and interested in Japanese food. It was pretty noble for a 9 year old but he occassionally proposed to swap his peanut butter and marshmallow spread sandwiches for my onigiri. I wouldnt usually swap for a normal ham or peanut butter and jelly sandwich but his spreadable marshmallow looked too good to resist so I sometimes accepted his proposal, usually gave him the umeboshi and he never got my "mentaiko"!

    I have to admit, initially I did have the feelings of not wanting to be pointed at during lunch, but at the same time, quickly realized that I couldnt do that at the sacrifice of giving up good food. After a couple weeks, at 9 years of age I was over it and even feeling sorry for kids who had to eat the same old cold ham sandwiches every day. I'd say my strong sense of pride in my cultural roots especially in food was probably formed during this experience.

  • At 10/26/2009 2:35 pm, Blogger angie said…

    I was the world's biggest fusspot as a kid, and was always more interest in playing than eating. All through primary school I ate nutella sandwiches for lunch, occasionally with hundreds and thousands (which I dubbed 'multicultural fairy bread'). One time my dad substituted the nutella for vegemite without telling me... what an ambush that was!

    As I got older I developed a love for food and cooking, especially as I recognised the way it can be used to communicate, to express joy and love, to nuture and make people happy.

    Thanks for sharing these same sentiments on your blog, Helen, and in your work, Luke.

  • At 10/26/2009 2:45 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "10. What's the ideal breakfast you'd want to wake up to?
    A big bowl of pho – with the lot! Rice noodles, raw sirloin, brisket, tripe, tendon and beef balls."

    Good answer! :)Except maybe I'd pass on the brisket and tripe, eww.

    A.V <<<

  • At 10/26/2009 7:51 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    I love Anna's story! I was in high school before there was Asian migrants in m school, but in primary school I always stood out as the "wierd" kid.

    I am the product of two generations of foodies, and I grew up in a very conservative area. My lunches were always fresh and healthy, often leftovers, sometimes a thermos full of soup, or a wrap with Lebanese bread. Felafel, hummous, Chinese stir fry, or even cold pizza. Doesn't sound too strange now, but in the suburbs of Sydney in the 1970's, I was a freak!

    One of the worst bits of teasing I got was after bringing raw capsicum to school in my lunchbox. The other kids knew what it was, but would never consider eating it without being cooked.

    Now, I happily seek out new food experiences, and can't wait to go back to Vietnam. Crispy Silken Tofu with Black Pepper sauce sounds amazing.

  • At 10/26/2009 8:56 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A typical packed lunch for me when I was a kid usually consisted of highly embarrassing items such as chicken liver parfait sandwiches, and a small container filled with cubes of blood jelly (my mum coerced me into eating them by saying they made my cheeks rosy pink). I was the kid no-one wanted to swap their lunch with. My best friend was Italian though, and always offered me tiny bites of her salami sandwiches. Back then, this meant the world to me, and I remember eying the Italian boys at school thinking, "I need to marry one of these guys so they could make me salami sandwiches".
    To my mum's credit, she also included a packet of chips, and yakult. The latter was my most prized possession. The Caucasian kids went gaga for my yakult; to them it was liquid gold. In year 5 I made my best friend's crush kiss her just for my Yakult. When Yakult started appearing in Aussie supermarkets, my reign subsided.

  • At 10/27/2009 10:50 am, Anonymous Phyllis said…

    Well, I was born and raise in Singapore. We never had the need to bring lunchboxes, as we buy our food from the school canteen. So when I got married, moved to australia and I had kids, it was to my horror when I found out that I had to pack my kids lunchboxes! What do other mums pack for their kids? Will what I prepare, makes my kids happy? Will they be teased at if they dont bring sandwiches ... all these were my thoughts and concerns. It's been so far so good, he gets asked at times, about what he's eating... luckily he's pretty oblivious, so all's good. A typical lunchbox for my grade 1 kid, ranges from homemade vegemite scrolls, onigri (rice balls with fillings), rice with tamagoyaki, veggies and spam, fried rice or even seaweed inaris.

  • At 10/27/2009 11:03 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    Whilst it wasn't a typical packed lunch, I used to take the school dinner money my mum gave me (in the UK we paid a small amount for a hot meal at school), keep it, sneak into the kitchen before anyone in the house was awake, and make my own sandwiches. Then I spent my dinner money on sweets and ice cream! The sandwiches would have all sorts of non nutritional stuff (whatever I could find in the kitchen) but I did have a thing for Shiphams salmon and shrimp paste. I'm sure mum must have noticed the fish paste disappearing but she never said anything. If I couldn't find anything interesting I used to have salad cream sandwiches instead - with chives I cut from the garden. It was a good scam! I must have been about 11...

  • At 10/27/2009 12:45 pm, Anonymous Jen said…

    Under the age of 15 and back in the philippines, my lunches were usually with rice. I loved my mom's dedication to my having the right lunch box. At one time, I had a Japanese-made one (Aladdin brand, i believe)that looks as sturdy as a guitar travel case. Inside the thick insulation are three little containers stacked on top of each other - one for rice or soup, meat and fruit/vegies and with it's very own "spork" (spoon + fork). Lunches were special and mom made me feel like we were just eating right at home.

    Now I'm a mother of a 5-year old boy, and enjoy reminiscing my preschool years lunches. My boy often asks for a pasta or sandwiches (just like everyone else's), but from time to time I treat him with rice lunches in ONE small,sectioned lock & lock box - easier to handle than lots of little containers. But i'm secretly wishing he could sit on the table, surrounded by food containers, and eat the same way when I was his age.

  • At 10/27/2009 3:04 pm, Blogger M said…

    I find my experience similar to many here, but nonetheless, it brings me back to my school days as a child and I find myself nostalgic now.

    The affair of lunchbox food was always more of a political matter, as it would be a struggle between my mother, her mother and also her mother-in-law, depending on where I was staying that night and who managed to get to the kitchen first.

    My working mother, who had to take care of everything, took care to give me a nice packed lunch of wholemeal bread sandwiches with ham lettuce tomato, or peanut butter and jam. A snack would be a piece of fruit and perhaps a packet of crackers. How I wished for the other kids' white bread sandwiches with crusts cut off, with nutella perhaps or vegemite and cheese.

    My mother's mother was oblivious to my desire to want what the white kids wanted, and as a good asian kid, I actually got an amazing 3 tiered box of soup, rice, and meat with veggies. My favourite was when she made sweet and sour pork from scratch, coupled with broccoli. My least favourite ever was tripe. She also packed some durian in one time, and it literally cleared out the whole classroom and for the rest of the month (lucky that kids have short attention spans), I was known as stinky-box.

    My mother's mother-in-law attempted to outdo them both by "asian-izing" my lunchboxes. We have had sandwiches ranging from hard boiled eggs and peanut butter (seriously), to fish fingers with mayo and mustard. Some were better than others. Surprisingly, the fish fingers one wasn't bad. To this day, I still eat my fried fish with both mayo AND mustard.

  • At 10/27/2009 3:28 pm, Blogger Taste Buddies said…

    A great read Helen. I still haven't been to Red Lantern but I intend to do so as soon as possible. A typical packed lunch for me was money! Yes, I was one of those kids who bought lunch from tuckshop. Not bad stuff -- but salad plates or sandwiches. I struck up a deal with one of my besties whose mum would make divine roast beef sambos. She hated them so I'd give her the money and she'd give me her sambos. It worked well!

  • At 10/27/2009 5:05 pm, Blogger Travel West Aus said…

    I was packed the same thing for lunch every day of my twelve years of school - but I never complained because it meant I didn't have to make my own lunch! A sandwich of avocado, cream cheese, lettuce and cucumber on multigrain bread was always the order of the day, with an apple on the side and a muesli bar.

    Now days, I'm making up for it by learning to cook as much as I can - a boring lunch stresses me out a little!

  • At 10/27/2009 5:12 pm, Anonymous Arwen from Hoglet K said…

    I wish someone would pack me a multi-layered lunchbox! I used to have a sandwich list stuck on the kitchen cupboard with a different filling for each day of the week. That way I never had to think in the morning.

  • At 10/27/2009 6:38 pm, Blogger Cherry Blossom Cupcakes said…

    Wow, I love the sound of some of these lunches, YUM!! I was the typical second generation Italian kid at school with the gigantic lunch CASE full to the brim with food. Half a ciabatta loaf, prosciutto, bocconcini, sun-dried tomatoes that leaked oil all over my books, arancini (little fried rice balls with a nugget of mozarella cheese in the middle). The lot! I had major lunch box envy of the Aussie kids with the crustless white bread vegemite and cheese sandwiches which ofcourse I wouldn't touch now!

  • At 10/28/2009 9:58 pm, Blogger serp said…

    Unfortunately for me, growing up in the far reaches of outback Queensland (in the early 80s) and my parents being very busy being the only medical people for 100s of miles I was stuck with the two prong problem of 2. The first was my parents didn't have time to make anything fancy for 3 kids as they were often on the road or had to be on call/sleep when they could. The second Any fresh produce had to be trucked in along with all the usual things you get at the supermarket, this truck came once a week at best and only bought seasonal fruit/vegetables that were not refrigerated (not enough room as the cold compartment was full of milk/cheese etc.) so basically I had to eat stuff that didn't spoil on the hot weather and lasted a long time in the cupboard. So I ate a lot dry goods for lunch, I remember one week I had to eat dried cereal (no milk) for most of the days at school. I remember my mum was really embarassed for not being prepared enough!

    In fact, the only abundant food out that way was meat and potatoes, which we ate a ton of. In fact, quite a few of my lunches would end up bring the remainders of steak & potatoes from the night before!

    I tell you what, I was so glad as a teenager when we moved to a regional centre and I could eat more like a normal person!

    But that experience has made me love cooking now and I love cooking food of other cultures. I know a lot of country people who are still meat & potatoes people at least 3 times a week. I would be a plain meat and veg person maybe once a month max now!

    Reading the article with Luke talking about eating Pho for breakfast over anything else really struck a cord with me. As being a full blown country boy (now living in Sydney) I would totally give eating Pho for breakfast a go! If only I could could figure out how to make that perfect broth (all my Pho attempts always fall short on this critical part!)

    Thanks for listening!

  • At 10/31/2009 7:42 pm, Blogger The Beancounter said…

    i was a picky eater growing up...i did not like cold lunches (i still don't)... my lolo (grandad) used to drop by during my lunch break with my favourite Filipino sausage (longanissa) ang steaming hot rice!

  • At 11/01/2009 7:27 am, Anonymous Sare said…

    My mum was somewhat adventurous so my brother and I would never know what would be in our lunchbox. It could be as normal as a nutella or vegemite sandwich cut into quarters, packet of chips, popper. Other times it would look like a nutella sandwich only to find that it's nutella on one side and vegemite on the other after the first bite!

  • At 11/01/2009 9:36 am, Anonymous Jessica said…

    Growing up my parents both worked what seemed like 24/7 so it was my grandma who often packed my lunches. Being Asian and in the eighties grandma surprisingly made me sandwiches for lunch. Often it was jam/vegemite or peanut butter but there was a time when she made fried egg and vegemite on a toasted sandwich - which would inevitably become soggy and chewy by noon. There was always a peeled apple (not sliced) to accompany my lunch and a cold prima.
    NOwadays I am a mother myself - working full-time. I pack my son's lunch the night before and his favourite fillings would be Cha Loa (vietnamese pork roll) which I slice into 1cm discs and a splash of soy sauce ot vegemite and sliced kraft cheese on multigrain bread, crusts off. If I'm being lazy I might pop into breadtop and buy those twin frankfurt buns at $2 each and a chocolate milk prima.

  • At 11/05/2009 5:03 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This was a great idea helen. I've loved reading about other people's school lunches!

  • At 11/06/2009 8:09 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ike many children of immigrant parents, my parents seemed to work every waking moment of my childhood. If they weren't laboring in a factory they were cooking for all six of their children. So the daily lunch boxes weren't as exotic as one would think from a Vietnamese kid. Lunch money and brown paper bags were always provided for though! These days however, with mum and dad deservingly unemployed, it's not unusual to come home on a weekend to a nice bowl of Pho or Banh Canh Cua Gio Heo (crab, pork leg soup with tapioca noodles) for breakfast.... yummo!!!

  • At 11/06/2009 11:35 am, Anonymous jR said…

    I had a homemade hamburger with normal tiptop bread that got wet and squished flat in the 100%-moisture-capturing aluminum foil every school day for 5 years straight. You could see the tomato through the bread! o.0" I can never forget the unmistakable stench of cooled mush of beef and eggs (and when the Asian-Western-food combo confusion got the best of my mom.. strawberry jam) as I opened my foil..

    ..but once it hits your lips.. it's oh so good~ ^^

  • At 11/06/2009 2:23 pm, Blogger Jo said…

    Hi, I too went through the Australian school system with the "abnormal" lunch box, with both my parents being Welsh and self-confessed foodies! I would never know what surprises it held until opened although sometimes the aroma upon unzipping the school bag did give it away.

    Sandwiches (or homemade rolls) were filled with all sorts of goodies ranging from roast meats, meatballs/rissoles, cheeses but not the processed sort either - blue cheese was a favourite even at an early age as was (and still is) tasty cheese and strawberry jam to salami's and other cured meats. I have to say until I actually asked for peanut butter one day to be "normal" like the other kids, I had never been given a sandwich of such spreads like peanut butter or nutella! But I remember that was mistake pleaded the normality case to my mam who insisted on giving me peanut butter for about a month straight!

    During winter I had a flask (a wide mouthed thermos) in which we found stews, different soups, left over asian dishes, baked beans with sausages and of course, my favourite was always the curries!

    As for fruit, well it could range from apples to figs, water melons to prunes... it was that varied and at times quite scarry considering the after effects!

    Things such as pototo crisps, lollies and even biscuits weren't in the lunchbox very often, my parents didn't believe they were needed!

    I can always remember some of my friends faces when they would look into my lunchbox! And sometimes I would get that many offers to swap sandwiches.... those are great memories.

    I am thankful for what was put in my lunchbox as a child not only because it was good food but looking back I realised my mam and dad just wanted us kids to grow up and enjoy all foods.

    And to be honest, I do the exact same thing, even the flask, with my two children and they love it!

  • At 11/09/2009 4:23 pm, Anonymous Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT) said…

    I was the only Chinese kid in the schoolroom in Tassie, and my mum made me stand out even more by packing me rice lunches in a thermos. Stuff like stiry fry with chicken and shiitake mushrooms. Oh the shame :)

    Ironically, I now pack a hot lunch for myself and my (Anglo) fiance every day - including my mum's recipe for chicken and shiitake mushroom stir fry.

    Jetsetting Joyce

  • At 11/11/2009 5:00 pm, Anonymous divemummy said…

    I still shudder - strawberry jam with Kraft singles cheese sandwiches often featured in my lunch-box. Ocassionally if there was left over char siu pork we got that sliced up into sangers. Lunchbox choices seemed so limited 30 years ago. Pressed square shoulder ham or round chicken loaf - I can't even remember if you could actually buy leg ham in the supermarket deli in those days.

    Maybe that's why I never buy a sandwich for lunch these days when there are so many more exciting choices available.

  • At 11/11/2009 6:05 pm, Anonymous brenda said…

    I’m a Papua New Guinean Chinese Australian and grew up in Rabaul PNG ( now married to an American Italian). Every day at lunch time I would wait at the school gates (along with others) where my mother would deliver me a hot cooked lunch in a little buka basket complete with utensils and sometimes if it was noodles and soup I would get a little saucepan and bowl with chopsticks. But mostly it was fried rice or fried chicken or some other Chinese yum-cha thing. I would then seek out the expats at school and swap for a baloney and tomato sauce sandwich (honest!, but not all the time)

  • At 11/12/2009 7:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I didn't have any packed lunches. It was either canteen food or wait till I got home. Best fun was when when I got extras from food rations provided by the govt.
    *can't believe I'm sharing this*


  • At 11/12/2009 11:19 pm, Anonymous Norman said…

    Like many others, I brought left over dinner as lunch as well. My distinct memory was sometimes when I had my favorite left over for lunch, I would poke the thermos with my spoon with a little too much excitement.... and shattered the inner glass chamber! So I would be looking at a yummy but inedible lunch with huge disappointment. I was a silly boy... probably still am :)

  • At 11/13/2009 12:59 am, Anonymous KFC So Good said…

    ummm... not as lucky as so many here to have pack lunch. I do remember I save up the lunch $ to buy toys & stuff that I like. Get a roll and stuff it with cheetos would be a likely candidate for lunch.

    However, on the occasions that I do pack lunch to school - my fav is boiled pork belly marinated in essentially what I know know as Nuoc Mam on rice. It is natually kept warm in a thermos and some of the fat melted into the rice at the bottom.

    Priceless on a cool winter day.

  • At 11/13/2009 8:18 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    oh my goodness...a typical packed lunch when i was a kid? this takes me back about mum. since i was whinging about all the other kids were having sandwiches (she used to pack me rice with pork with nuoc mam for school lol) she attempted to make me sandwiches and i had this everyday lol. It was cha lua (viet ham) with vegemite. EWWWW lolsss. And my mates mum saw what i was eating and she was horrified lols. true story. but i thought it was cute how she wanted to give me vietnamese and aussie food together in my lunch box lol.

  • At 11/13/2009 9:19 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Luv Luke's new show on SBS. Now ... what did I have for luch when I was a kid (sooooo many years ago)....
    When we first arrive in OZ .... my lunch box comprises of left over from the nite before (usually rice with meat,vege etc). Later ....as we become more Australianised, Mum started making us sandwiches, fruit on the side and a tub of yogurt. Needless to say ... I still prefer the formal. LOL


  • At 11/13/2009 5:27 pm, Anonymous Harimau said…

    Mmm... fried nooddles? It wasn't very healthy, but it always made the other kids jealous since it smelled so good (after being warmed up).

  • At 11/24/2009 5:58 pm, Anonymous Felix said…

    The iron tiered containers. Don't you mean they are the tiffian carriers thatthe Hokkiens and peranakns used to carry their food?

    The Asain chinese and Vietanmese have very simialr customs. Confucioism and the three religions or the Tham giao was adopted by Vietnam when the Tang empire powerfully ruled itsd far flunf Far east asain regions which stretched from Japan, korea, Cambodia, Vietnam , Malaysia, Java and the phillipines. Vietnam like Japana nd korea adopted confucionism but with their own emblished modifications.

    Thus the family legacy of the red lantern with the heights of tis similarity to Chinese, Burmese, Thai and Malay culinary will never cease to inspire me for I have remained a very conservative spiritual asain all through my multicutural living in Melbourne.

    By the way, I know thaT Phong or Phung in Mandarin is "Fang" or Fung . What is Lap in the chinese written form ? I am into the influence of CHinese cultrual history in Vietnam and traching chinese taiji chi gong to vietnamese .

  • At 11/26/2009 9:20 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    To all entrants - Thanks for your amazing comments - what fascinating stories you all had to tell! The winner was announced here.

    Hi Felix - Thanks for your detailed comment. Unfortunately I'm not sure how Lap is written in Chinese characters. Perhaps a reader may be able to help...


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