Q&A with Cookbook Author Hetty McKinnon

Food writer and cookbook author Hetty McKinnon talks about her latest cookbook "To Asia, With Love," third culture cooking, and why she doesn't like labels in food.

Hetty McKinnon profile photo

Penguin Random House

From my first email exchange with cookbook author Hetty McKinnon I thought, “Is everyone from Australia this welcoming?” That initial impression continued into our phone conversation and permeates the pages of everything she touches. 

Hetty is a food writer and cookbook author, born and raised in Sydney but now living in New York City with her husband and three boys. She is the editor and publisher of the multicultural food journal Peddler and host of its spinoff podcast The House Specials. 

Her first cookbook, "Community," sprang from her initial foray into the food business, when she made boxed salads and delivered them by bicycle in her Sydney neighborhood. She self-published her salad recipes, initially with a 1000 copy run. Community sold out within three weeks. It has since been picked up by a publisher and sold more than 130,000 copies in Australia.  

Now, 10 years after starting that salad business, she is out with her fourth book “To Asia, With Love." At its root, the book is inspired by her mother, a formidable Chinese home cook, along with influences from living and eating in Australia, London, and New York. 

Below is a lightly edited excerpt from our interview. 

Q: There seems to be a warmth to everything you do. Even the titles of your books feel like a warm hug: Community, Neighborhood, Family, and your latest, To Asia, With Love. Is that conscious? Is that part of how you think about cooking? 

I started this business in Sydney 10 years ago. Without really thinking about it and without any real experience in food, I just decided I would make salads, like what I cook at home, and cycle them around. I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t have anything, really. I just wanted to cook for people. 

With that I realized how much food is this incredible connector, how it builds bridges for people. The handing over of a salad box introduced me to all these people who are now my friends. For the first time I saw the power of food to bring people together. And I realized it was something I had actually had my whole life; that my mom, who was this voracious cook, just was always cooking for us. I realized this was why she was cooking. It was an expression of her love, particularly being an immigrant and being Chinese, where physical displays of love and even verbal displays of love are not shared that often. 

In Asian culture, food is the way of expressing your love. My mom was on the journey with me. She was in the kitchen and talking and helping me chop things and babysitting my youngest. And it made me realize the power of food to bring people together from disparate cultures. For me, that is what I’m most passionate about. I love cooking, but most of all, I see myself as a storyteller and food is the vehicle to tell stories that bring people together. It does really underline and underscore everything that I do. 

Q: I think some folks are intimidated by the idea of tackling Chinese cooking or Asian cuisine in general. What do you say to those people with regard to your recipes in “To Asia, With Love?”

I think a lot of the inspiration for this book came from conversations with non-Asian friends who would say, “Oh I love Asian food, but I just don’t know how to cook it.” Really, I didn’t start my career cooking a lot of Asian food to be honest. When I was in Australia, I thought, “Oh my mom can do that, I don't need to cook Asian food.” But like now, I’m the one responsible for creating those dishes if I want to eat them. 

And what I realized is that these ingredients are not that different to what people already have in their pantry. We’re very lucky we now live in this borderless food world. You can go to the supermarket and get things like soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar. These things are normal everyday ingredients now.

When I started writing this book, that became the driving force behind the recipes. Ninety-eight percent of the recipes you don’t have to go to special markets for. I tried to recreate the dishes that I love and the flavors that I love, but in a way that was just for the home cook, which is what I am. I’m not a chef. I think that’s why the recipes have struck a chord with so many people, because there is nothing there that they shouldn’t be able to do. 

Q: You refer to the concepts of “third culture cooking” in your newest book. Can you reflect on what that term means for you? 

I guess third culture cooking was really maybe something that I wasn’t cognizant of when I was doing it. Even from the very beginning, I was drawing on traditional flavors, but I was cooking it in a different way or I was presenting the final dish in a different way. I realized when I moved over here (to Brooklyn) in particular, that I was drawing on so many different parts of my life and places I’ve lived and bringing them all together on a plate. 

I can’t really classify a lot of what I do as Chinese cooking, even though it is very based in that. It’s not the same type of Chinese cooking as my mom. I draw on a lot more influences than she does, so third culture cooking is this amalgamation. It’s not particularly Chinese in some sense, but it’s not particularly Australian in another sense. It’s really like a third interpretation of all those influences. 

I really wanted to have people kind of think about food as not rooted in authenticity, in fact, but rooted in personal experience and that’s what the food is that I cook in all my books. It’s personal. 

Q: Your mom is such a presence in this book and in your journey in the food world. What does she think of you and what you’ve accomplished?

My mom is very traditionally Chinese, even having lived in Australia for 50 plus years. And she adores Australia and thinks it's the best place in the world. She doesn’t look at any of these books as legacies. The legacy of the family is really her cooking and what she's given us. She’s way more impressed by me cooking dinner for my kids than she is of me writing a book. I know she is proud, but it is pride in a way of, “Oh you got something from me. There is something from me that’s rubbed off”. I think that brings her a lot of happiness. 

When it comes down to it, we are these two women who grew up in very different worlds, but we are innately very similar. Her life was just so different to mine. The interesting thing about us is that we kind of ended up in the same place. Her cooking was what she was known for and, strangely enough, I’ve kind of ended up in the same place. I think that is a source of intrigue for her. She does say to me, “Oh thank goodness you like food or you love cooking as much as I do”. 

Q: I feel like you have a particular perspective and a sort of inclusive way of talking about vegetarian cooking. Can you touch on that?

Something that I’ve done since the very beginning is really not focus on the vegetarian aspect of any of my books. I really don’t like labels in food. Labels focus on what you are missing out on rather than what you are gaining. I really see my food as what you’re gaining. You are gaining in flavor, texture, and knowledge. It was a conscious decision. I want food to be inclusive and about bringing people together. I think when you focus on those labels and categories in food, people really create barriers. 

I have had a lot of people say to me that they’ve cooked halfway through the books and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was vegetarian.” For me, that is the biggest compliment because I really do try to create food that is so tasty that it’s not even about what’s missing. 

Q: What’s next? Anything on the horizon? 

There’s always something on the horizon! I always have a lot of projects going. I am working on the next book, which I probably can’t talk about much, but it is another kind of vegetable book. All my books are very personal and I think that’s just my style of storytelling. They’re very narrative based. I have this independent journal called Peddler. It's a multicultural food journal. I’m working on a new issue right now that comes out in the fall and there’s a podcast that goes with it. There’s always something happening. 

Thank you so much, Hetty!