Hetty McKinnon rē•spins Tradition for the Modern Kitchen

By making friends with salad and cross cultural cooking.

By: Karyn Trepanier
Hetty McKinnon rē•spins Tradition for the Modern Kitchen

Hetty McKinnon is a cook, food writer, and podcast host. She’s also the publisher of Peddler, a mutli-cultural food journal devoted to sharing stories and recipes from a diverse array of voices. In a world where the media has been predominatley focused on Western tastes, Hetty is a breath of fresh air. As an Australian-born, Chinese cook, she strives to bring the world together on one plate and invites everyone to enjoy the flavors of her multi-cultural background.

In her latest cookbook, To Asia, with Love, Hetty rē•imagines traditional Asian dishes from her childhood by preparing them with a modern twist. Her book is a collection of vegetarian recipes, inspired by both her Chinese and Australian backgrounds. Hetty gently opens our minds to embracing new flavors by proving that vegemite can be mixed with miso, and hoisin and tahini can come together to make an irresistibly delicious sauce. She recently spoke to rē•spin about her connection to salad, community, and third culture cooking. Keep reading to learn more about how Hetty got her start in the food industry and to see how she rē•spins traditional Pad Thai. 

How has cooking helped you rē•spin the way you think about your two very different cultural backgrounds?

In every way. Honestly, before I started to cook I didn’t know how to bring my Chinese heritage and my Australian upbringing together. For most of my life those two sides have felt at odds to me. For most of my life I have felt pressure to mute my Chinese heritage in order to exist and to feel accepted in a Western world. 

Cooking really brought me back to my Chinese heritage. It allowed me to understand how important it is to celebrate and uphold the values that my Chinese family gave to me, while also giving me licence to think of myself as “Australian”. On the plate, I felt freedom for the first time in my life. Cooking is an opportunity to truly express all parts of myself. I owe so much to cooking.

You use the term ‘third culture cooking’ in your book, To Asia, With Love. What does third culture cooking mean to you?

I use the term ‘third-culture cooking’ to refer to recipes that have roots in more than one place. For me, I was born in Australia, but grew up in a Cantonese household. At home, my mother only cooked Cantonese food (with the exception of a few Western style meals here and there) and the food of her heritage is what we grew up knowing and eating. However, I was raised in Sydney, Australia, a young country forged by immigrants, so the food influences around me were incredibly diverse. Much of my journey in food has been trying to make sense of all these disparate influences and bring them together harmoniously on a plate. 

When I started writing To Asia, With Love, I was looking to share my heritage and the huge gratitude I feel for being Chinese, being Asian and how firmly rooted I feel in that. But, as I started developing recipes my Australian-ness couldn’t be quashed. I did feel a pull to connect both sides of my identity together. The result is a style of cooking that is not completely the way my mother would cook, not really Australian either, but a third interpretation of those two cultures which manifests into something quite unique.

The photography in your cookbook is absolutely beautiful. Why did you choose to take the photos yourself?

I really wanted to create warmth and intimacy in this book, so I thought it made sense to shoot all the photos myself, in my own home, using my own plates and flatware. The photos were all shot on 35mm film (with some medium format shots by my friend Shirley Cai) which lent a feeling of nostalgia. I wanted the reader to feel like they are a part of the scene, a guest in my home, and I think the film photos achieve that by inviting viewers into the frame.

Taking my own photos also felt important to me because it was an homage to my dad, who passed away when I was a teenager. My dad was an avid amateur photographer who was always taking photos and I was lucky enough to inherit a few of his cameras. My mother has had such a huge impact on my life as a cook, but in my photography, I can also honor the influence of my dad.

You got your start in the food industry by creating a salad delivery service, Arthur Street Kitchen. How did this business help you develop your signature cooking style of modern, veggie-heavy, Asian inspired recipes? 

Arthur Street Kitchen was more of a fun idea than a business! At the time, I had just given birth to my third child Huck, and I was not looking to go back to a full time office job. So I scratched my head, trying to think of a business idea that would keep me at home but still give me a creative outlet. Every idea I had was food related. The salad delivery business was started on a whim. I have been vegetarian since I was a teenager and at home, I was making these big, vegetable-laden salads for my family, so I thought it would be a good idea to share them with the community. I loved my community, Surry Hills in Sydney. It was where my kids were growing up and I feel such a deep connection to the people, the businesses, and the landscape. I felt this was a wonderful way for me to contribute to the community.

I really learned to cook while I was running Arthur Street Kitchen. I had the most amazing customers who came along for the ride and embraced me and my food with so much enthusiasm and love. They accepted all my weird and wonderful concoctions, which gave me the confidence to bring some of the flavors and ingredients of my childhood into my salads. My mother was around every day of my delivery service – officially, she was on duty as my son’s caretaker, but unofficially, she was my collaborator, exerting her Asian-mom influence. 

She brought ingredients which she thought would make excellent salads – black fungus, seaweed, lotus root. She suggested sauces and flavors. I started to combine classic Chinese sauces like hoisin, with ingredients in my pantry such as tahini. I found that stir-fried lotus root fit well with earthy brussels sprouts. I introduced my beloved dou si (Chinese fermented black soybeans) as a salad dressing. Arthur Street Kitchen really allowed me to develop my food identity as an Australian-born, Chinese cook who wanted to bring the world together on a plate.

​​Pad Thai Salad with Shredded Cabbage and Kale

This is a fresher, crunchier version of crowd favourite, pad thai noodles. Rather than using cooked vegetables, I’ve used raw kale and cabbage, which I’ve softened by massaging in salt and lime. This leaves the veggies citrusy, with a bit of crunch, adding an exciting brightness to this classic noodle dish. You could use other veggies too—carrots would be a nice addition—and add pan-fried tofu slices if you want to increase the protein. The signature tamarind and lime flavours of pad thai are featured in the zesty dressing, while roasted chopped peanuts make a lovely textural topping.

Serves 4

Vegan

Ingredients

  • Leaves from ½ bunch of kale (about 120g), finely sliced
  • ½ small green or purple cabbage (about 9 ounces/225g), finely sliced 
  • 1 lime, halved
  • 12 ounces (350g) wide rice noodles
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 radishes, finely sliced
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced
  • 20 basil leaves
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • 3 tablespoons roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • Pad thai dressing
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Vegan “Fish Sauce” (Hetty’s recipe for this can be found in To Asia, With Love)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind purée
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • ¼ teaspoon red chile flakes
  • 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • Substitute
  • Vegan “Fish Sauce”: regular fish sauce
  • Kale: chard, shaved broccoli or cauliflower
  • Cabbage: napa (Chinese) cabbage or finely shaved Brussels sprouts 

Directions

  1. To prepare the pad thai dressing, combine the brown sugar, fish sauce, rice vinegar, tamarind, sesame oil, chile flakes and garlic in a small saucepan over low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat. Add 1–2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper.
  2. Place the kale and cabbage in a large bowl, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of sea salt and squeeze over the juice of ½ lime. Massage the salt and juice into the leaves to tenderize them, then leave to sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the packet instructions, usually about 6–7 minutes. Rinse under cold running water and leave to drain.
  4. To serve, combine the noodles, massaged leaves and dressing in a large bowl and toss to coat. Taste and season with sea salt and black pepper. Add the radish, scallions, basil and cilantro and toss gently. Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the peanuts, then serve with the remaining lime, cut into wedges, on the side.

Recipe taken from To Asia, With Love, by Hetty McKinnon, published by Prestel. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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