Interview with Hetty McKinnon | To Asia, With Love

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.

Hetty McKinnon: Hi everyone. I’m Hetty McKinnon and my latest cookbook is called To Asia, With Love.

Suzy Chase : There’s something that sets your cookbooks apart from the rest. You have this lovely way of connecting beautiful, doable recipes with the photography and a feeling of comfort and homeyness to me. You’re one of the cool Brooklyn moms along with Jessie Sheehan. For those of us who adore your cookbooks, I think we feel like we know you, your family and your beautiful kitchen through the photography in your cookbooks and with, To Asia, With Love you imagined a book that not only conveyed nostalgia, but also captured a strong sense of home. So you took all the photos in the cookbook?

Hetty McKinnon: I did, I did, and all the photos were taken on film, which has probably a departure from every cookbook on the cookbook shelf right now. But as soon as I had the idea for the book, the photography, it was a no brainer. You know, I knew I wanted to shoot it on film. I knew I wanted to give it that really irrefutable sense of home and warmth. And to be quite honest, rawness, I’m not a professional photographer, I’m not selling myself as a professional photographer, but I think I have particularly with all my books, but particularly with this book, I have such a connection with the recipes and the photos and the book is part of the storytelling. And I think over the years, I’ve become more. I’ve wanted, I’ve had more at stake in terms of how the photos look. I felt that as the books have progressed, so with this one, I just thought to myself, I want to shoot it myself. And I want to shoot it on a film, because you know, a lot of professional photographers say to me, when they shoot a book like this, they’re trying to make their digital photos look like film. So a part of me was like, I’m just going to shoot in on film and they’re largely unedited. And I think it just lends just a beautiful raw, honest portrayal of every dish. And it’s just something so special, you know, film really invites you into the frame. It’s not perfect. And that’s probably why it’s not used very much in food photography is that you don’t get the details that you get in a digital photography. Um, you can’t sharpen up edges in that same way. So there’s a lot of layers in, in one photo, the secondary reason. I don’t know if it is the secondary reason, but it’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to use film was because, um, it was like this kind of indirect nod to my Father who doesn’t really figure a lot in this story because it’s really a book about my Mum and my relationship with my mum, but my Dad was an amateur photographer and he always had cameras lying around the house and he developed all his photos in a makeshift dark room in our laundry. And I remember admiring his photos so much as a kid. Like, I didn’t know anything about photography, you know, as a young child, you know, when I was under 10, but I would look at his photos and just think he was a master. And I always took that away with me. You know the way he captured images. Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s the other part of why I felt like I needed to do this, that part of the book for myself in this particular book.

Suzy Chase : I love that so much. And I love when the photo kind of matches up with the recipe, you know what I mean? Like you have super homey and comforting recipes and then you look at the photo and it depicts kind of what the feeling is surrounding this recipe.

Hetty McKinnon: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s also because it’s not styled, you know, there was no stylist on this book and it was just me. I would cook the meal and take a photo. And I think as I explained, I think it’s the very first page of the book that, you know, everything in the photos is, is my dining table is my flatware, my plates, my children in there, my children aren’t in this book very much actually. But if they are, or their hands are in it, it’s them in the actual act of eating, not in a posed, active eating, if you know what I mean. And, and that’s, that’s the difference, you know? So everything you see is real, you know, you, I don’t know if that happens that much in, in cook books anymore, where there is no styling, no prop, no people sitting around acting as hand models. They’re just, it’s just my family really. So yeah,

Suzy Chase : It’s very inviting for home cooks. I think. I’m very intimidated by like the perfection of the cookbook. And then I wonder if they put more into how it looked then the recipe.

Hetty McKinnon: Absolutely. Yes. It’s a different process. You know, I think when there’s a styling involved, your making the dish, according to how you think it’s gonna look the best on camera on film or on digital photography. But I think the difference with my dishes is that they were made according to the recipe. And that is how they actually will look if you cook it at home because, you know, I don’t see myself as any different to anyone else that is picking up my book to cook dinner for their families every night. You know, I am a home cook, I don’t have any professional training. So the things that I’m cooking, other things that I am able to achieve at home in my own home kitchen for my family. So I think that that’s, you know, you talked about kind of, you don’t find it intimidating and that was a really important part of not only this book, but every book and every recipe I write is that, that element that anyone can do it. It’s not, it’s not about technique. It’s not about hours slaving over a dish. Um, it’s just about good, wholesome food that you can put on the table to nourish your family every night.

Suzy Chase : So To Asia. With Love is your homecoming a return to the flavors of your childhood. Throughout the house there was always evidence of your next meal or food for the future. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hetty McKinnon: Yea, so I grew up in a very traditional Chinese household in Sydney, Australia. My parents had immigrated in the late my Dad in the late fifties, my Mum in the early sixties and they married in Australia and they were essentially a very Chinese family and so I’m the third child and I grew up kind of caught between these two cultures. My Mum having just arrived in Australia, straight from China and you know she’d got married straight away and had children straight away. Her life was very much centered within the home. And almost every memory of my Mum when, from when I was younger is of her cooking is of her in the kitchen. She started every day with a big Asian breakfast, the savory meal, whether that was fried rice or noodles or, jook, conjee or macaroni soup. There was always something brewing from the very start of every day. And it didn’t really stop. You know, everything that she did was somehow focused upon the meal. She was cooking or the next meal, you know, like she would have and greens sitting in the colander, she would have meat defrosting in the sink. She would have some sort of broth going on on his stove top. There was just always food and endless parade of food in our house. As a kid, as a Chinese kid who grew up, grew up in a Western world, I’m like thinking, why doesn’t she work wise? And she out, like, why isn’t she at school helping, helping out at school? Like all the other Moms, there was definitely judgments I had about things that I thought were her choices, but a lot of these things weren’t her choices, you know, like she didn’t have the opportunities and so being this young mother and wife, living in the suburbs of Sydney in a country where she had not grown up, she didn’t speak the language cooking was really probably her survival in many ways. And the way she kept her traditions alive, the way she stayed connected to her homeland almost desperately, you know, sometimes I think of it now and I think it was almost desperate the way she cooked, um, because she was really trying to hang on to something. And that’s something that, that’s a story that you’ll hear a lot from immigrants. You know, when you’re in a foreign place, food is the way you stay connected to the life that you left behind. You know, the story of immigrants is, is a complex one and being somewhat of an immigrant myself. Now, my story is very different in every way to my parents immigrant story. But, you know, immigrants are very, um, indebted to the host country, the country that they moved to. And I think my mum, my parents definitely had that indebtedness, but there’s always that sadness to the life they left behind. And I think food was really my mom’s way of really staying connected.

Suzy Chase : What does she think about this cookbook?

Hetty McKinnon: It’s kind of hard to say to be completely honest, because she doesn’t say that much about my professional work. My Mom’s been with me kind of my whole journey and food. She used to cook for me with me actually, when I had my salad business in Sydney, she influenced actually a lot of my recipes in both flavor and ingredients, but she was in my home at the time as my youngest son’s babysitter, you know, she would come over and kind of pretend she was looking after him, but really just always find herself in the kitchen in terms of like what she really thinks of this book. She hasn’t really said, you know, she makes comments about pictures and recipes and the things I included, but she really hasn’t said that much about this book. And that might seem odd to a lot of people, but it’s not odd to me. I mean, it’s a very Asian Mom trait not to issue direct praise to their children. The, a lot of the pride is internalized. And I’m hoping that’s that it’s there, but honestly, she’s really, she’s said very little about this book, even though she knows that it’s a pretty much a hundred percent inspired by her. It’s actually what I expected.

Suzy Chase : You have a dumpling for every season in To Asia, With Love summer is coming up. What’s your favorite dumpling ?

Hetty McKinnon: For summer I’m excited about tomatoes. And in the book, as you mentioned, there is, I was very, I’m very, very excited about this as it dumplings by the seasons. And it’s basically several dumplings for every season working with, you know, things that you might pick up from the farmer’s market or what you’d get from your local grocery grocery place. There’s a tomato and egg dumpling in the book, which is basically a riff on these very classic Chinese dish called tomato and eggs. There are several versions of it in the book, but tomato and eggs is basically a home-style tomato stew that is mixed with scrambled eggs and it’s kind of on this kind of sweet side, sweet and salty side, and I kind of made it into a dumpling filling. And so it’s one of the really exciting things for me in this book. And I think from early reactions, it’s one of the things that readers have really loved is the fact that it’s showing that dumplings can be made with lots of things and not just say a straight pork filling with some vegetables or just, or not even with Asian ingredients. I was really excited to show that because that’s how I eat dumplings at home. Like I don’t just make Asian style feelings. I don’t just use Shiitake mushrooms and tofu and water chestnuts and Napa cabbage. I use lots of things that I just eat normally, and I can fashion those into a dumpling filling. So it’s one of the sections of the book I’m really excited about because it just shows people the possibilities.

Suzy Chase : So here’s another thing that I’ve never heard of noodles on a sheet pan. I mean, that just opens up a whole new world for me.

Hetty McKinnon: You know, one of the characteristics that I love most about my Mom’s Chow Mein is the textures. There is crispy bits cause she pan fries at the bottom and then she kind of leaves the middle bits off. And then she has a sauce that goes over the top. But I love a sheet pan dinner, you know, which working Mum doesn’t love a sheet pan. You let someone else do the work for you in this case, the oven. So I think I just kind of threw everything onto a pan and gave it a go and I was really impressed by what came out. I was like, wow, like on a high temperature. And I, I love a high temperature bake. You’re getting these crispy bits that feel like you’ve had to work for it, but you haven’t done anything. It’s been such a popular recipe because who doesn’t want that complexity in, in texture and flavor without really doing much at all. And the other wonderful thing about that particular dish is that you can use virtually any vegetable. Like I think in my recipe I use like broccoli, peppers and carrots, asparagus, baby corn from a can I, I love baby corn from a can, but you could really just use any vegetable. You have languishing in your vegetable drawer. It’s a great fridge clean out dish.

Suzy Chase : You know what you taught me, how to do? You taught me how to cook with lettuce.

Hetty McKinnon: It’s so good. I mean, I think that recipe was in Family, right? The rice lettuce in Chinese culture, we don’t eat a lot of raw food, which is ironic since I make salads, but growing up, you know, like there’s this belief that raw foods make your body cold. And so, you know, it’s not seen as like that healthy for your body, cause it makes it harder to digest and so we didn’t really eat any raw foods going up. So lettuce was always cooked. So when I saw people eating it raw, I was like, what you eat lettuce raw?. And you put in a sandwich? Like that’s pretty interesting. Lettuce just like any other leaf leafy vegetable. Right. And particularly, and I’m talking particularly of iceberg lettuce, which is much maligned for some reason, but you know, when it’s cooked, it’s so good. Right?

Suzy Chase : I love iceberg lettuce. To me, it’s still the best lettuce The other night, I made your Perfect Jammy Soy Eggs. So I guess the key to soy eggs is the five spice powder, which I have never used in my soy eggs.

Hetty McKinnon: I mean, it might seem odd to have the Perfect Jammy Egg recipe in this book, but I grew up with a lot of eggs. You know, my eggs are like a big part of a Chinese diet or my, my particular Chinese diet my mom had a really strong belief in eggs as brain food, you know, before every exam, she made me an egg sandwich, but I’ve always cooked eggs, really haphazardly. Like I don’t pay attention. I don’t look at what I’m doing. Like when I boil an egg, I just throw it in the water. Like I tend to do that sometimes. So,I basically worked it out what I needed to do. And it was so exciting. It was life changing, you know, to know how to boil an egg to the way you want it. And I was so excited. I put it in the book and I think it’s been so popular. So many people have reached out and said, Oh my God, I can’t believe I finally know how to make a jammy egg. And this is like such a joy because I was like, wow see, I’m not alone in my little kitchen disasters and journey. It does pay to share even what you think is such a basic skill. And none of us don’t have those basic skills. So I’m really excited that everyone is making perfect jammy eggs now. And in the book also got, you know, three ways to marinate them to add a bit of flavor and color. And there’s also some beet eggs in there. I mean, so beautiful, like the beautiful, huge pink and that beet egg, the longer you leave it, the further in the pink moves towards the yolk. So I’ve left it so long that the yolk has almost turned pink. It’s really cool actually, to try. And then the third egg is amazing a tea marbled egg. So you’re basically making a tea broth and your kind of cracking the eggs so it’s going to create a marbled effect on the egg whites, and you’re kind of cooking it in there and soaking it in there. And it just gives off this beautiful kind of smoky earthy flavor.

Suzy Chase : The US Senate passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on Thursday, aimed at addressing the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans across the US amid the ongoing pandemic. There has been a dramatic surge of violence and hate crimes targeting Asians. And I wanted to check in with you and ask how you’re doing and what I can do to be an ally.

Hetty McKinnon: Thank you for asking Suzy. It’s been a really, it’s, it’s been a really complex thing to unpack. You know, it’s one thing to be called names, which most of us have experienced our entire entire lives. It’s one thing to think about the, the bigotry and hatred and biases that you’re against you, just because of the way you look, but to actually, um, to think that people are dying because of the way we look, it’s been a lot. And so, and, and, you know, I might add black people have experienced this their entire lives and continue to, and I’ve had to ask myself, you know, a lot of questions I’ve had to really confront the injustices that I’m not, I’m no longer willing to accept. I, and a lot of people who look like me and a lot of POC’s, we we’ve turned a blind eye to a lot of the latent racism and the casual racism over the years, growing up, ever since I was a kid, you know, like being called names, being called derogatory names, made spun off people who have asked me about what my name means like Hatty like it’s not because it’s unusual telling me that’s not really my name it’s gotta be short for something, all of these things, all like they’re all released in the fact that I look the way I look and it’s been confronting to have to think about, you know, 40 plus years of being treated this way. And now I’ve had to confront what I’m no longer willing to accept, and that’s not okay for myself, but it’s predominantly for my children. My children are biracial. So it’s been an interesting conversation with them because, you know, they have a different experience to me and they are very close to their Asian heritage, probably closer to Asian heritage, but then, you know, they live in a Western world and they’re white adjacent. And that’s another thing that I have to kind of, you know, unpack and try to understand, but in terms of, you know, how people can help, how people can be allies, I think people have to really stop and ask questions, you know? So I really think that there’s so much going on and so many layers to this story, but not only from this tragic horrendous incident, um, in Atlanta, but just the every day stuff that we have to deal with. And you know, in food, when you just look at one industry, the one that we’re in food, you know, you, you see this respect towards cultural recipes and I don’t believe that that people can’t cook food from other cultures. I think that you are welcome. We are all welcome to food from other cultures, as long as there is respect, as long as there is, um, you are doing everything you can to respect where the food has come from and the people that’s come from and the stories behind the food. And I just don’t see that happening. And I’m going to be really honest here. I just see a real pillaging of our cultures, food in the food media, not just in press, but in the books that are being published by publishers is heartbreaking. If there are sliding scales of dishes, you know, but there are some dishes that, you know, that only kids who grew up in a really specific type of Chinese household because they are so specific, they’re specific to a region. And when you see people taking that recipe and just, just taking of stripping it of its value and its history, and its heritage, it’s really heartbreaking. And like, these are not violent crimes against Asian people, but it’s stealing from our culture. You know? And I just, I think that people can be allies by asking more questions by questioning themselves. I ask myself questions all the time about it, authentic to who I am. Am I honoring where this comes from? All of these questions that I ask myself, when I’m writing a recipe or writing a book or writing an article, everybody needs to ask those questions. I’ve been privileged enough to have grown up with a mother who gave me this rich culture and that I’m trying to pass that onto my own children. And I don’t even feel like it’s, it’s mine. I’m just interpreting it. And I just feel like there’s just not enough of that in the food media right now. So I don’t really think I answered your question, Suzy.

Suzy Chase : I just wanted you to know that I honor you and I honor your work. And the reason I reached out to you to have this cookbook on was because I wanted to elevate your story.

Hetty McKinnon: Yeah. And I think that generally the conversations I’ve been having, there’s been really thoughtful conversations about these topics. And, you know, like some topics are harder to talk about than others. Obviously I try to force myself to share something and it’s not always the most coherent answer you’re going to get because it’s laced in so much emotion and it’s laced in so much of, you know, a lifetime of feeling like you don’t really belong. And so, you know, I don’t think you could ask me this question on two different days and you’d probably get two very different answers, but, um, it’s really hard to unpack these, these issues that you carry around with you, but people have been really interested in it. And there’s a researcher responsibility in releasing a book called to Asia with love during this time of stop Asian hate during this time of hate crimes. This book is written as a love letter to not any specific place, but to a culture which has raised me and sustained me. And that I owe so much to, you know, it’s, it is hard to talk about sometimes, but there’s a, there’s a comma in, you know, To Asia, With Love and it’s because it was written as a love letter to, to this culture, to not to one place where people have said to me, Oh, you know, Asia is not a monolith. And it’s like, to me, it’s not, it’s not even a place. It’s it’s culture, it’s in my blood. It’s um, you know, it’s my DNA.

Suzy Chase : So now I’ll ask a happier question.

Hetty McKinnon: That wasn’t not a happy question.

Suzy Chase : Yeah it was heavy. Now to my segment called Last Night’s dinner,It’s not that heavy, where I ask you what you had last night for dinner.

Hetty McKinnon: It was a very late night. My boys were playing baseball so we came home and I made pizzas at nine o’clock.

Suzy Chase : Oh my gosh. That’s so late. What kind of pizzas?

Hetty McKinnon: So I have this favorite pizza. I use dough from my local Italian deli so I didn’t make the dough. But my favorite pizza is potato pizza. Like a pizza with thinly sliced potatoes is something I had when I was six or seven years old. But my sister is about seven years older than me so she went and she was like, she was about, she was a teenager. She must’ve been about 13. And she went to a party to, at her friend’s house who was Italian and she took me along with her. It was very weird. And the Grandmother of course, was the only person that spoke to me. And so I sat in the kitchen with my sister’s friend’s Grandmother and she fed me potato pizza with Rosemary on top. And I have to tell you, Suzy is really one of my most vivid food memories from childhood. And every time I eat a potato pizza, I am sitting in that kitchen with my sister friend’s Grandmother eating that potato pizza.

Suzy Chase : So where can we find you on the web and social media?

Hetty McKinnon: I am ArthurStreetKitchen.com still my original website for when I had the business and on social media I’m @HettyMcKinnon. That’s it.

Suzy Chase: Well, thank you Hetty so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast. I am so thankful. I know you.

Hetty McKinnon: Thank you, Suzy. I feel the same way. It’s been a great conversation.

Outro: Follow Cookery by the Book on Instagram. And thanks for listening to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book.

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Suzy Chase

Suzy Chase

Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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