To Asia, with love from Hetty McKinnon

Myffy Rigby
American connection: Hetty McKinnon browsing for ingredients in Chinatown in New York.
American connection: Hetty McKinnon browsing for ingredients in Chinatown in New York.  Photo: Supplied

Brooklyn-based, Sydney-born recipe writer, vegetable guru and all-round beautiful soul Hetty McKinnon has spent the past few years searching for identity. From her years delivering salads on the back of a bike for her Surry Hills business Arthur Street Kitchen, a smash-hit series of cookbooks (Community, Neighbourhood, Family) and regular columns in Good Food and The New York Times to launching a quarterly multicultural food magazine, Peddler, it's been a real journey.

Now with her latest and most personal cookbook, To Asia, With Love, it feels like she's finally found what she's been looking for. "I think I can say, in my mid-40s," says McKinnon, "I'm really, really proud to be Chinese."

Hetty McKinnon's new cookbook.
Hetty McKinnon's new cookbook. Photo: Supplied

To Asia, With Love is a homecoming of sorts: a devotion to McKinnon's mother, a discovery of her Chinese heritage and an embrace of her inherent Australianness. 

Moving beyond her feelings of discomfort around who she was as an Asian Australian was a reckoning. As a Chinese kid growing up in the suburbs of Sydney in the '80s, all she wanted was to be blonde, blue-eyed and play on the netball team. "It's just little things," she says. "A little disconnect between the person I was at home and the person I was as soon as I walked out of that front door. I remember always feeling out of place. I didn't know who I was. And really not proud."

What she didn't want was to be the kid who came to school full from a traditional Chinese breakfast, only to have teachers push money on her to buy Vita-Weats with peanut butter for recess because they noticed she didn't really eat during the day. "I never knew how to explain it: 'I just ate my four-course meal at breakfast.' "

I think I can say, in my mid-40s, I'm really really proud to be Chinese.

Hetty McKinnon

Cultural identity is a large part of her latest book – it's a deep-dive into her past, her relationships with her Chinese family and, as an extension, her culture. And now that she feels more at ease with herself, she wants to pass that on to her children, who aren't just growing up Australian Chinese, but growing up American, too.

"This whole idea of identity is something that's come to me really late in life. It's something I never really thought about growing up. I definitely experienced identity issues, but it's something I only experienced now, living away from Australia and living away from my mum and having my own kids [Scout, Dash and Huck, who are 14, 12 and 10 respectively]. We are now always talking about identity. We're always talking about racism and inequality." 

McKinnon's first childhood trip to Hong Kong was one that stayed with her. The smells of the streets, the cooking and the shock of seeing her relatives living in such cramped quarters. An entire family residing in a one-bedroom high-rise apartment was an unfamiliar sight for a kid who had grown up in the Aussie sprawl. She returned to Hong Kong just a few years ago, weighed down with expectation.

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"I had this irrational thought that 'I'm going to find my people'. What was strange was when I got there, I'd never felt so alienated in my life. I think it was partly because I was on my own, but I just kinda felt like a phoney," says McKinnon. "On the outside, I looked like everybody else. I've always spoken Cantonese but I didn't want to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong because I felt embarrassed about the fact it wasn't very good. So I had this weird epiphany like, 'I don't really belong here, either.' "

She started gravitating towards Westerners and people who spoke English because she felt more included, understood. But the pioneering side of her won out in the end and she forced herself out of her comfort zone. "I would get the train and fudge my way through Hong Kong with my bad Cantonese and crouch in laneways and eat with locals. I ended up really loving it but it took me a few days to really acclimate."

Hong Kong has a loaded history for her mother – it was a gateway to Australia, and part of her escape from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. "It was a long road to get to Australia. And I do always feel that there was a sense of loss in her, in terms of what she could do [outside of home-making]. So for her the cooking was where she could really show her confidence, and perhaps that was a link to the mother country.

Hetty McKinnon's steamed tofu and shiitake mushrooms with ginger, spring onion and soy.
Hetty McKinnon's steamed tofu and shiitake mushrooms with ginger, spring onion and soy. Photo: Shirley Cai

"Cooking was really important to her and I didn't really understand that as a kid. I would wake up and go down to the kitchen and she'd already have three dishes cooking. It was all go, all the time. When I was younger, I was like, 'Ugh. Why is she doing all this? Give me Corn Flakes.' But now as an older person I really do understand why food was so important to her. Not only was she expressing herself through cooking but expressing her love for her children."

It was the act of cooking that connected McKinnon and her mother as people outside of the constraints of the mother and daughter relationship. In the early days of the salad delivery business, her mother was quite involved and it bonded the pair. "I guess my mum thinks it's weird and funny that I ended up cooking and writing about food. I think she's proud ... I think."

Cooking and working together also led McKinnon back to her Chinese roots. "The more I do, the more cooking is important to me. It's the way I express and feel pride in my cultural identity," she says. "It's probably an emotion that lots of kids of immigrants go through but we all experience things differently depending on where we are in life. We've been in New York for about six years and it feels like such a long way away."

Hetty McKinnon making noodles for her new book, To Asia, with Love.
Hetty McKinnon making noodles for her new book, To Asia, with Love. Photo: Shirley Cai

Americans are a little confused by Hetty McKinnon. But only when they meet her. Before that, when they've only seen the Anglo name on paper, they have a very clear idea of who they think she is, and they're comfortable with that. But then they see she's Chinese, and hear her broad Aussie accent, and the latent racism starts to come out. The old "where are you really from?" line is used more than she'd like.

Taking her breezy Australian attitude to the US has been a boon for the writer. Selling 100,000 copies of Community, her first book, certainly didn't hurt either. "It's taken people a really long time to understand that you don't have to fit into a box. You can be lots of things and still be a very good cook or a writer or an artist or whatever. I think in America, often people put you in boxes and I didn't really fit into any of them. So it really forced me to look at who I was." 

Initially, she had trouble breaking into the US market. McKinnon wasn't all that willing to sell herself. She just wanted to write and cook. "When I came to America, people really expected me to 'be somebody'. It was all like, 'You need to build yourself up! You need to talk about yourself and who you know!' And all I could think was, 'This is mortifying.' We don't talk about the things we've achieved. Also, I came to realise how different I am as a Chinese Australian. There is this strong pressure with children of immigrants not to disappoint. 'Whatever you do, do not embarrass your family name.' "

Writing is a heartfelt process; often when writing down a recipe, she cries. Particularly with this book, much of it told through the lens of her mother's recipes. "It's incredibly emotional for me," she says. "Particularly the recipes that are my mum's. It really is my way of feeling close to her when I'm far away. It's uncomfortable to be so personal sometimes, but I feel if I'm not giving myself in the most honest way possible, then I'd best not write that book."

Her tears aren't the only ones spilled over those recipes. With previous cookbooks, more than a few readers have written to say they cried when they read something, or saw a photo of a particular dumpling that made them think of a lost relative. "It's those things that really inspire me to keep going and to keep being as honest as I can about who I am," she says. "And the impact I can make in people's lives in giving them not only the food but the stories. When you cook someone's recipe there is an incredible trust. And that's a real honour."