For one of the restaurateurs behind Sydney’s Red Lantern restaurants, the meat pie, once a symbol of her foreignness as a new immigrant, has since become the taste of home. Here, she reflects on the power of food to divide, and act as a potent medium for social change. 
Pauline Nguyen

28 Mar 2013 - 11:34 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

The year is 1978. I am not yet five years old and standing curiously in front of the school canteen at Regents Park Public School with my shiny 'lunch box’ in hand. I am a fresh immigrant to Australia, having escaped Vietnam on a boat with my family just after the war. The school kids used to tease my brother Lewis and me for bringing our Vietnamese lunches in four-tiered tiffin carriers. Each tier contained a different dish representing some sort of health benefit. Typically, one compartment contained rice and another was packed with glistening caramelised pork. Steaming bitter melon soup filled another tier and crunchy raw or stir- fried vegetables completed the final compartment. When stacked up, the tiers clamped together for efficient maintenance of heat and portability. The kids made fun of us: 'You’ve got funny eyes. And we’ve got our meat pies. We are the bestest bunch. ’Cos you’ve got a smelly lunch."

It didn’t take Lewis and me long to save the 50 cents each that was required to see what all the fuss was about. A short wait in the tuckshop queue and we skipped impatiently towards the cold aluminium benches, each with a steaming hot meat pie in our hands. We sat side-by-side with our elbows slightly touching. We had studied the Aussie kids extensively and already knew what to do. We worked our little fingers around the perforated plastic, pulling apart an opening to let the pie slide out. The sachets of tomato sauce were to be opened with the tips of our teeth, and only one hand used to squeeze the red condiment on top of the pie. The sauce was to be spread evenly with our index finger. Next, we folded down one side of the hot foil tray to mark the entry point. The time had come.

Our first bite revealed a steaming mush of non-descript meat and gristle encased in a hard and heavy pastry. We had never tasted anything like it. We’d heard talk that some pie factories added chopped up rats’ tails and kangaroo paws into the mix to make more money. I scanned the insides of my mouth with my tongue and swore that I could pick up the texture of some of those ingredients. I swallowed quickly, and decided that these pies needed more tomato sauce"¦ a lot more. Bad-quality pies often do. But if it meant that we could become more Australian by eating these things, then that was what we were going to do.

That was then. Over the years, we have of course enjoyed plenty of quality pies from Australia and around the world.

It is a habit of mine to momentarily shut my eyes, and fill my lungs each time I set foot into a new city centre. It is important for me to remember the smells of that particular place and time. Paris, all year round, smells of biscuits, expensive perfume and the Metro. Old Saigon forever smells of aromatic broths, incense and the chargrill. The air in Spain in the summer smells of the sea, of delicatessens and of chorizo. Winter in London is of fast food, coffee and construction. New York in November smells of street meat, roasted chestnuts and the subway. In San Francisco in spring, I can smell sourdough, aniseed and steamed crab. I am in Boston with my brother Lewis, a week before Thanksgiving, and my nostrils detect marijuana, tar and browning pastry.

We are here to visit my mate Sam Jackson, and to taste the food that reminds us of home. Born and bred in Wollongong, NSW, my friend likes to don high-end streetwear from the UK’s The Duffer of St. George. He is as detailed as his vivid tattoos. If he comes across like a showman, it’s because he is. Before settling in Boston, Sam lived a flamboyant lifestyle sailing super yachts across the Mediterranean and Caribbean as personal chef to the über rich.

After five years of living fulsomely on the water, the need to do his own thing was too loud a calling to ignore. Finally, in October 2010, Sam honed his business skills and opened the doors to KO Catering and Pies – the first Australian-inspired food business to be offered in New England. Sam explains the name KO. 'It stands for 'Ken Oath’," an abbreviated Aussie slang for 'reaffirming your admiration for something". A cult-like following ensued with locals and expatriates consistently filling this cozy little pocket of Australiana.

It is a mild Monday morning just outside 87 A Street in South Boston. Sunlight strikes the handlebars of the three-wheeled 'pie-cycle’ parked strategically out front, and the Australian flag pinned to it shines bright. The side of the building reveals a graffiti-like mural of red, white and blue, and for all its abstractness, the shape is unmistakably of Australia. Inside, I close my eyes and inhale deeply. The leaden aroma of browning pastry immediately reminds me of home. Pillows of paper-fine puff pastry seem to dissolve at the slightest touch, and the meat filling is perfectly seasoned, generous, hearty and honest. Sam hand-makes his pastry on premise and uses a whisk to stir his meat filling. His pies require little or no tomato sauce.

If I still doubted my friend’s patriotism, the feature wall above the wooden communal table on which we sit knocked it into me. Familiar food items grabbed me, held me tight and reminded me of home. Maltesers, Lucozade, Heinz Tomato Sauce, Tim Tams, Weet-Bix, Vegemite, Milo, Barbecue Shapes, Ribena and Mars bars. One item stood strangely out of place – Mae Ploy Sweet Chilli Sauce.

When I question its inclusion, Sam tells me it’s KO’s homage to Australia’s multiculturalism. 'Just as my salt and pepper squid is my homage to the Red Lantern. The squid is the only item I charge a premium for, and I can name the boat it came in on." I blush and am taken aback by my mate’s sentiment. His homage to my sustainable Vietnamese restaurant in Australia is typical of his fierce loyalty.

Sam continues: 'What would Australian cuisine be if the Asians didn’t come? Here, the locals ask me all the time where I get my Mae Ploy Sweet Chilli Sauce from, and when I come clean, they almost have a heart attack."

Sam sources much of his produce from Dorchester Avenue – the Vietnamese district. He explains that he often witnesses racism towards the Asians, but he chooses to do business predominantly in the Asian district. 'Have you ever done business with an Asian?" This is a question he often asks the Bostonians. 'If it’s not clean, if it’s not fresh, they throw it back at you. They’re proud of their product. They work hard. You can’t deny their work ethic."

As I sit in my mate’s little pie shop in Boston, I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of pride. Not only am I proud of Sam and his success, I am proud of his audacity to stand up for what he believes in. I think of home and of my own restaurant’s most recent initiative, created in the hope of influencing social change.

The project is called Friend and Kindred Day and is a collaboration with the Asylum Seekers Centre of NSW. Tying in with Human Rights Day, the idea is a simple one. The asylum seekers share with Red Lantern recipes of dishes that remind them of home; and our entire crew prepares and serves these dishes to 100 asylum seekers and volunteers around Christmas-time, to give support and welcome newcomers to this country.

When my family first came to Australia as refugees some 34 years ago, the Australian government welcomed us and gave us immense opportunities. We embraced the Australian way; we worked hard, we found success and we contributed to Australian society.

Red Lantern currently employs asylum seekers and will employ more at our new Red Lantern at Riley restaurant [which opened in May]. It is our hope that more businesses will do the same. As restaurateurs, and, as human beings, we believe that everyone deserves a chance. This is our way of giving back. Who knows, maybe one day, the asylum seekers too, can travel the world and end up in Boston to taste the food that reminds them of home.