In Hetty McKinnon’s best-selling new cookbook, To Asia, With Love, you’re invited into a tempting cross-pollination of food worlds—recipes grounded in her Chinese heritage, but heavily influenced by the author’s childhood in Australia. Think Buttery Miso Vegemite Noodles and Flourless Soy Sauce Brownies—though it’s the Sheet Pan Chow Mein that has become a beloved recipe for time-starved cooks.
McKinnon, now based in Brooklyn, grew up in Sydney with immigrant parents from China’s Guangdong Province. She ate fried rice for breakfast while watching cartoons, but Vegemite and bread for lunch. As she explains, her mother cooked as a way to stay tethered to her homeland. “Australia’s really multicultural, but it depends on where you are,” she says. “This is not a unique story, but I had to be somebody else at school. You almost mute parts of yourself to fit in. I was definitely caught between two cultures.”
As she got older, cooking helped McKinnon embrace her multi-cultural background. In 2011, after she had her third child, she started a Sydney-based salad business called Arthur Street Kitchen, delivering hearty vegetarian salads by bike around her neighborhood, Surrey Hills. It grew through word of mouth, and people started asking for recipes, so she self-published a book, Community. Its success led to a publisher release and has now sold more than 100,000 copies. “It was such a magical time. I’m still kind of known as the salad lady in Australia,” she says. She wrote two more cookbooks, Neighborhood (2017) and Family (2019) before To Asia, With Love. The recipes are all vegetarian, with lots of ideas for substitutions.
In a recent Zoom interview, we talked about how food is a common language, where she eats and shops in New York’s Chinatown, and life-changing noodles in Tokyo.
In To Asia, With Love, you write about “finding empathy in salad.” How do you find empathy in food?
Empathy is about listening to other people and connecting on various levels. Feeling connected to people is probably the most intoxicating thing; [it’s] what makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world. We don’t even talk that much about food, but food is the common language and opens the door to speak to somebody and understand them.
I’m always trying to use food as a way of sparking conversation, and asking questions. A huge part of empathy is just caring enough to ask the question. So it’s really the foundation of everything I do.
You have said that through writing about food, “you came home.” Do you feel a strong sense of who you are now?
I do now, and it really only happened when I started cooking and understood that food is not just about sustenance. It has a long-lasting effect on people. I also started to understand my mom more—I saw us as two women who grew up in polar opposite times. She grew up in China and didn’t have the opportunities I had to further myself. I started to see her in me and the things she could have potentially done if she grew up how I did. I think she has this mixture of pride and almost wistfulness about what could have been.
In the book, what are some of the recipes that really meld those Asian and Australian influences together?
The book became a melting pot of influences, much like Australia itself. Cheese and Vegemite was always one of my favorite sandwich combinations. Australians love salt, and Vegemite—which is basically pure salt—plus cheese, is like a national treasure. In the book, I created the Buttery Miso Vegemite Noodles recipe based on that flavor combination. When the book came out in Australia last fall, it became like this cult dish and everyone was making it.
Do you think the Sheet Pan Chow Mein is the most popular recipe of the book? I made it for my family and it was so good.
I think it is one of them! I don’t know how I thought of cooking noodles on a sheet pan, but I tried it, and all the bits around the outside were crunchy and crispy and the middle stayed soft, and wow. I love the idea of tossing it all together and letting the sheet pan do the work for you. I think the Everything Oil [a version of Sichuan chile oil] has also taken off. It’s a foundational recipe, because you can put it on any savory dish.
Now that you’re a New Yorker, let’s talk about NYC’s Chinatown, a place I miss so much. Where do you love to eat?
New York’s Chinatown is not a tourist destination—I mean, people visit, but the Chinese and Asian community actually live and do business there. That’s a big difference with, say, Sydney’s Chinatown: Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Chinese community lived there, but with the urban sprawl, many left and moved to the suburbs. That never happened in New York, and there is a real kind of magic there.
I said recently to my husband that we could eat in Chinatown every day for five years and still not have tried all the restaurants. Before the pandemic, we’d go to all the same places. We love Golden Unicorn, the dim sum place with the trolleys on East Broadway. Congee Village has always been a family favorite because the dishes have a lot of Cantonese flavors, very close to what my mum would make. Spicy Village is a funny, small little place with a cult following. It’s one of the first places I ate the famous Chinese tomato and egg dish where it wasn’t cooked in a home—they make it with fresh handmade noodles.
Since the pandemic, I’ve been going to different places to try to support as many as possible. I’ve tried Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle, which has the traditional rice noodle rolls [filled with beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, crab, and more]. I went to Noodle Village a few weeks ago, and they had these amazing curry noodles.
What are your favorite markets to shop in Chinatown?
My favorite has always been the Chinatown Supermarket of Manhattan, in the Two Bridges area. They have so many types of noodles and a fresh produce section downstairs. It’s like a little secret, but the produce in Chinatown is some of the best in the city.
I also love H Mart and went recently to the one in the East Village, which is just so much fun. They have a hot food section, and I can buy my boys fried chicken because I don’t cook meat.
My other favorite is JMart in Flushing, Queens, in an amazing complex called the New World Mall. The soup dumplings are, like, nine for $3. When I go into these markets, I get panicky because I want everything. I now go and buy all the brands I used to see in my mom’s kitchen.
How much does travel influence your cooking?
Really so much. It is a privilege to be able to travel and see the world. It teaches you so much seeing how other people live, even in a sanitized form.
The life-changing udon noodles recipe in the book is inspired by a visit to Udon Shin in Shinjuku, Tokyo. We waited in the line outside—there are, like, three seats inside. But it was wonderful to line up because we watched the noodle master making noodles from scratch in his tiny, tiny kitchen. The udon is made basically moments before it’s served to you. Can you compare any experience to this? Like, I was just ruined. As a vegetarian, I love anything umami, anything deeply savory. And it was this bowl of perfect udon with a hot soy sauce, a beautiful mound of scallions, a jammy egg, and black pepper. I grew up eating noodles, but I didn’t grow up eating those noodles.
The Japanese have such pride in everything they do, and it extends to food and recipes.