Hetty McKinnon on Bean Water, Tall Poppy Syndrome & Being Deviant in the Kitchen
Plus how salad can build a community, the secret life of a successful cookbook author, and preserving your history one recipe at a time—all on the latest episode of our podcast The Genius Recipe Tapes.
The Genius Recipe Tapes is a weekly show from Food52's new podcast network, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly Genius Recipes column and video series. This week, Kristen spoke with Hetty McKinnon about her Genius whipped hummus recipe.
This week on The Genius Recipe Tapes, cookbook author, recipe developer, podcaster, and salad-slinger Hetty McKinnon joins host Kristen Miglore to talk bean water, Hetty's secret double life in Sydney, and why it took a 9,000-mile journey away to get closer to home.
Check out the full transcript below (or hit 'play' and grab the can opener).
Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi. I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong genius hunter. For almost a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. On The Genius Recipe Tapes, we’re sharing the behind-the-scenes moments from talking with the geniuses themselves that we couldn't quite squeeze into the column or video: the extra-genius tricks, the off-road riffs, and the personal stories that actually have nothing to do with the recipe that week.
My guest this week is cookbook author, podcast host, journal editor and salad slinger. Hetty McKinnon. We talked about her Genius whipped hummus recipe, her mid career move to another continent and her refusal to peel chickpeas. Plus a question from Food52-er Daniel. It's thanks to Genius hunters like you that we've kept this column going 10 years strong.
Kristen: Hi, Hetty.
Hetty: Hi, Kristen.
Kristen: How are you?
Hetty: I'm doing okay, actually. Excited it's Friday.
Kristen: I forgot.
(Hetty and Kristen laugh)
Kristen: Well, just to get started, can you tell me how you stumbled on this Genius Recipe?
Hetty: I'm so overwhelmed that you’re actually calling it a Genius Recipe because it was a complete accident, and I don't see it as anything amazing, but it tastes amazing. So it's genius in that sense. But it's a whipped hummus, and I mean, you have to question if the world needs another hummus recipe right? There are so many. And who am I to write a hummus recipe? But this one, really, it came about purely as a kitchen accident. Sometimes I can be a pretty lazy cook. When I'm cooking for my family, when I'm not paying attention to like writing down ratios and things like that, I could just really just go with the flow and just throw things in. And that's what happened with this whipped hummus. Like, I basically opened a can of chickpeas and I thought I had drained them and I hadn't. And I just tipped the whole thing into my Vitamix blender. And then I thought, Oh, no, like, what have I done? What have I done? But again, being a little lazy, I decided just to leave the liquid in there. The aquafaba. And I thought, oh, actually, I'm just thinking, sure, it’ll be fine, so I won't put any water and I leave it. I'll use that as my liquid content, and then everything else kind of went in. And I usually don't add oil to my hummus until the end.
So I kind of started whipping this thing up. And as I started whipping, it started getting really big and much bigger than I normally get when I have hummus. You know, normally you have to really work for that really smooth texture. But this one just came out so smooth. And when I tasted it, I was like, whoa, what is, what is this? Like I don't know if anyone's done this recipe before. Maybe they have. But for me, it was such a light bulb moment. Like, wow, this is what aquafaba could do.
A dip for dinner is quite a fun concept, but for me, it's quite an essential recipe to have, in terms of something quick that you can throw together from pantry ingredients. But as a vegetarian, like, I'm always looking for ways to just roast lots of vegetables. When I'm feeling really lazy, I just want to roast a heap of vegetables. And how do I make those vegetables interesting? Well, it's normally something like a hummus, which you can serve on a plate and then put all the vegetables on the top. Have some bread, and that's just an easy dinner. But you can put like any roasted vegetables with it. Like I think, the original recipe, I wrote, I did carrots and it had a za'atar oil, But you can really, it's very pantry friendly, so you can really just switch it up and have whatever roasted vegetables, vegetables you want. Sometimes I just do, like, cut up, in the summer. I'll just have tomatoes, and keep it really fresh.
I've seen a lot of recipes lately that say you should peel your chickpeas. I don't know what if you have an opinion on that, I have personally never done it. I'm way too lazy a cook to peel my chickpeas. But I, many years ago, there was a lady we have, at the schools in Australia, they're not called lunchrooms. They're called canteens. And so they're run by parents who go and cook lunches and stuff for the kids. And so there was this one woman called El Ham. She was Lebanese and she ran the canteen in my kids’ school, and she made the amazing, the most, the smoothest hummus. And she always said to me, uh, my secret is canned chickpeas. And so now I never really cook fresh chickpeas to make my hummus. I just used the canned stuff, so.
Kristen: I mean, anything that starts with a happy accident just has me, you know, my ears perk up. I love that an accident in the kitchen led to then you putting together the pieces that there was something scientific going on, that we had also been hearing about recently with this aquafaba. And then there is something very deviant feeling about dumping in the liquid, too, because so many recipes start with drain the chickpeas or canned beans, rinse them. This is both a genius recipe and a deviant recipe.
Hetty: Yes, yes, yes. That's a new podcast of yours, Deviant Recipes. I'll be on that for sure.
(Hetty and Kristen laugh)
Hetty: I love breaking rules when it comes to food. So I do feel like a lot of what I do is like rule breaking, but kind of, sanctioned rule breaking because you produce something delicious out of it.
Kristen: This is The Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.
Kristen: I thought maybe you could tell our listeners a little bit more about your career up to this point in food. And kind of how the recipes and stories that you've sought out have evolved from your early days doing your Arthur Street Kitchen salad project to your more recent projects, like Peddler Journal and To Asia With Love.
Hetty: Okay, well, I've been doing a lot of this this week because to To Asia With Love just launched, which is my latest book in Australia. So that's kind of the latest part. But I'll dial back the years to 2011 in Sydney, in inner city Sydney. I lived and I just had my third child and Huck was about 12 months old. And I have three children who were all in very quick succession. So between the time I had my first daughter to my third child, it was only like, three or four years, and so I never went back to work, and before that, I worked in PR. But after I had Huck, I decided I didn't really want to go back to doing, like, a day, like an office job, basically. So I decided, what else could I do? And I really had this idea of making, like, the food that we were eating at home, which was like these salads, like vegetable based salads. And I wanted to deliver them to my community. Like, do something that would keep me in the community. It was just a magical time. I just loved, when you live somewhere and just love where you live so much and you love the people. And so it was just really, it wasn't really a business idea and before, but it was just, like a fun idea. And before you knew it, I was learning to cook through that job.
So Arthur Street Kitchen. Prior to this, I never cooked professionally. It was my first time really cooking for a lot of people other than, like a dinner party. But this was, the community was my dinner party. So it was an incredible experience to learn to cook during that business. And that business really taught me how to cook, it taught me about flavor combinations. I wasn't cooking a lot of Asian food that I cook now, but I was cooking like Middle Eastern food and Mediterranean food, and I was really learning about spices and how to put things together. And those salads were, I think, at the time, probably still now, a little unique because they were vegetable based salads. Not a lot of leaves, very hearty. And they were designed that way because of who I was cooking for. You know, people who were stopping during the day just have a quick lunch before they keep working. And so, yeah, that that business was just a magical time for me. I delivered salads on my bike. It started very small, very humbly. Started, my first week, I think I delivered four salads and three of those were my friends. And it grew and grew. And then I think about two years into the business, about three people on one delivery day said to me, you should write a book. And little did I know that those three comments would really change my life because I wrote a book. I started writing down the recipes. Before that, I didn't know how to write recipes either. This was all I was just learning on the job. So I wrote down 60 of my favorite recipes and then really didn't know what to do with that. What would I do making it into a book? You know, like this was very different to my previous life in PR. But I love magazines, I have always been a magazine junkie. I love paper. So I thought, well, I'm just going to do this properly. And it will be a complete vanity project and I'll have 1000 books in my house for the rest of my life. So my husband and I moved furniture around, and then the boxes came, there were 1000 books because that was the print minimum. And they sold out in three weeks.
So that was the very, very beginning of kind of everything that I've done. Through the business, I discovered a great love, that passion for feeding people but writing books and writing recipes, as you know, it connects you to even more people. So, Community has been this, Community was the name of the first book. It was this kind of runaway success. I mean to this day, I don't really understand the passion for that book, because it was a story about a very small community in Sydney, and it just resonates with people everywhere. So that book is very special to me. Like, I kind of see it as my beginning, like this kind of rebirth for me, professionally and personally, actually, So after that became like a national success and funnily enough, it was never released in the US until the first of September this year, 2020 and it was kind of like Australia's little secret.
From 2015 we moved to the US. My husband got offered a job over here. You know, the business had been going for four years, and after Community came out, there was a lot of pressure to expand and get bigger and to become something else, and to be honest, I wasn't quite ready for it to become something else. So the lure of New York— I was very attracted to it because it would give me an opportunity to kind of start again. Yeah, I kind of love that I love the business when it's very new and you're developing. I don't love having commercial pressures on myself, like even when I write a book. After I moved to New York, I did deliver salads for a little while in Brooklyn, believe it or not. But it wasn't the same because I couldn't cook from home. I cook from a commercial kitchen. The idea of delivery is not as unusual or, like different as it was in Sydney. So it was kind of I did it. I did a few pop ups, but I just decided to kind of go more into the food writing, which was kind of a natural progression for me, like being away from home and feeling very nostalgic for my childhood. Being away from my mother.
All those all those things really led me down the path off, kind of reconnecting with my cultural identity. It's something that I don't feel like I really did or do when I'm back home in Sydney because my mum's there. You know, we're close, we're very close to one another. She is a big part of my life. And when I'm with her, I don't ever really feel this really strong sense to connect too much to my identity. But once I've moved to the US, I just felt this great yearning, like a very deep yearning to find myself in the food that I was cooking and to tell those stories, not only my own but other people's stories. These small stories that make people really feel something. So that's when I started Peddler in 2017. Peddler really influenced me in such a huge way because. I guess, for someone that didn't always feel comfortable with who I was and my identity and my cultural identity, growing up in a Chinese household in Australia, in a very Western world, I think Peddlerreally allowed me to, to realize that there are other people in the world just like me who have those cultural caught between two worlds and right now like that just comes out in such a beautiful way you know on the plate on the page, those clashing of cultures, it allows me to, it’s just is a real source of creativity and inspiration for me in my work.
Kristen: And on the podcast too, bringing the stories of Peddler to life.
Hetty: Yeah, I mean, The House Specials is... I describe it like a meander. You know, it's just like a meander down. A little journey, a little story. Like we did two episodes just on one dish, which was this tomato and egg dish, which a lot of Chinese people grew up eating. And it was an unremarkable dish that somehow holds a lot of significance for perhaps people like me, people who you know, grow up like second generation Australians or Americans. It just conjures such wonderful memories. That's why we love to kind of, like, really delve deep into like, very small stories with Peddler. But obviously, the second season, which we're working on right now, is gonna be very different because we haven't been able to go into people's homes and it's gonna be more a situation like this, talking to a screen.
Kristen: It’s so interesting that you say that you actually were sort of relishing a chance to start over because, I was sort of wondering how that felt to have this blossoming career and have people really, clearly resonating with your work (or your work resonating with them, I should say) in Australia and then to feel like you have to start over. Did you feel like it was truly, completely starting over? Or did you feel like you sort of had some momentum coming off of the things that you had done already and learned in Australia?
Hetty: I thought I would have momentum in the US. But I don't think I did. It's just two different, two very different markets. So I feel like for most of my food career, I’ve had two parallel careers running. The one in Australia, which has blossomed, really mostly in my absence, because the first book came out about five months before I left. But coming to the US was quite a culture shock, actually. It wasn't as seamless as I thought it would be. You know, there was, this reputation and built up in Australia didn't really count for that much in the US. Even things like trying to sell the book, trying to, having to promote myself in that way, it's something that I've never had to do before. You know, just feeling really insecure and like, needing to tell someone, all these credentials, what are my credentials. I don't feel like I had credentials. Because, in Australia, you don't really talk, you don't really talk up your success too much. There’s this whole thing called the Tall Poppy syndrome where if you talk about your success too much, you get ripped down. Plus, in Chinese culture, it's probably, so I have it double.
I found it really hard to sell myself when I first got to the US. And I really found it hard to set my point of difference. Like, who am I? What am I doing that's gonna add something to the US Market? Whereas what I was still doing was still very different, like Community, those salads that I wrote in 2012 and 2013 are still very current in 2020. But I guess I just didn't have the confidence in selling myself, perhaps. So I did feel like it was a really new start, but I don't think that's a bad thing. You know, I feel like it was really good for me to reset and really look at how. Not to just keep going with the salad thing, because my salads, a salad are like first love for me. But to really, like, delve into other areas of food, of recipe development, and of writing that were really interesting to me. And I guess, like working, it's that feeling of being away from home and challenging myself that really led me to where I am now, which is in a really, happy place with the work that I'm doing. So yeah.
Kristen: How did you find it in yourself to both identify that that was what was required of you, to be more confident, and then how did you find that in yourself?
Hetty: I think I mean, everything I do is what happens really naturally, like these light bulb moments that happen. I don't know if it's a conscious decision, but once I decided to stop the salad deliveries, I knew that writing was something I wanted to do more of. And I've been so lucky to be able to write, like book after book, particularly for Australia. And then they get published later on in the US. I attribute a lot of where I am now to being away from home. From being away from my mom and all the things that I find familiar. So those things really pushed me to look deeper within myself. And it really allowed me to connect more with who I am inside, and it allows that to come out in the world that I produced.
Kristen: It's also so interesting that you had to have this evolution of how you talk about yourself and your work coming from a background in PR. Does that mean that in Australia, the PR work that you did also had a more humble bent than the PR that goes out in the US? Or is it easier to talk about other people's work that you're promoting in PR and talk that up than it is to talk about your own?
Hetty: I really don't, I didn't really have a narrative to promote myself.
Kristen: I don't know, a narrative of a secret bestselling author, across the world is pretty compelling to me.
Hetty: But you know, like five years ago, I probably wouldn't have said I would have probably been too embarrassed to say I have got this book that is sold, tens and tens of thousands of books copies just in Australia. I would have been too embarrassed to say that. But my American friends always say you've got to tell people like that is amazing and I'm like, I still am getting there.
Kristen: I wanted to embarrass you with a question from one of our listeners. and this question comes from a listener named Daniel.
Daniel: So how has becoming famous changed your relationship with food?
Hetty: Well, I don't think I'm famous.. so it hasn't changed me at all! It's interesting because as my career has, I don't think it really has changed. I don't think about that stuff at all. I don't I'm engaging with people over my food, and as my career has progressed, I've become more personal in the stories of telling. I think I trust my audience you know, like I trust the audience that I've built up over the last number of years. I trust them to take those stories and to accept them in the way they were given. I think that's one thing I've always been very lucky with the people who enjoy my food. So the personal aspect of the work that I do is the most fulfilling. Lke when I did that recipe for the Sook Mei Faan, which is the cream corn with rice on The New York Times, and it was actually called its Cantonese name. I had so many people reaching out to me and said, I feel seen. I can't believe I'm seeing a Cantonese recipe written in the Cantonese, word, name in the New York Times. Like it was a big moment for a lot of people. And I don't always even realize that those moments are going to happen.
Kristen: That's really beautiful and so special that you can connect with other people who recognize the dishes that you're sharing in the language that you're sharing. But also it stands out to people who aren't familiar with that dish.
Hetty: It's just really expanding, it's allowing everyone to be a part of the story. It’s very intoxicating to me to write a recipe that is from my childhood that is not particularly like culinarily incredible. You know, it’s not foam, it's not gastronomy, it's just very homey. And to give those recipes a home in mainstream media is, it's an incredible thing to be able to do. So I'm really, I'm really proud of that. I do consult my mum still on a lot of recipes. There's a lot of Facetiming and a lot of my mum telling me I'm doing the wrong thing. As Asian mothers always do. But it’s, it’s all part of this, bringing people a story that I think a lot of people can relate to, no matter what culture you're from.
Kristen: Being away, it must be so hard. And has your family been able to visit you here in that time?
Hetty: I haven't seen my mom for 2.5 years. My mom is, I think the New York trip would be too much for her now because she has ailments as a 77, 76 year old would have. So she hasn't done the trip to New York since we lived here. But she FaceTimed a few days ago, and I didn't get the call and she didn't call back. So yeah, it's hard. It's hard being away from home, and I feel like this year in particular is being such an intensely crazy [year].
Kristen: It must be so exciting for her to hear all of that that you're saying about her, too.
Hetty: Yeah. I mean, my mom plays it really cool, and she doesn't read English. She knows the work I’m doing though. I think the first time she's ever written a recipe down was for the very first issue of Peddler, the Chinatown issue. I wanted to put in a recipe that I made with her very often, which was called Gok Jai, which is a Cantonese dumpling with like, a translucent skin. And it's one that I just love it so much, and she makes beautiful like that particular shape. So I wanted that in the first issue of Peddler and she, I told her before, because I was already living in New York. I said when I get there, I want you to show me how to make this recipe. So when I got there, she had written it all down. She'd written the recipe and there was such pride for her to show me how to cook something. Because my mom and I lived very different lives. We’re very similar people, but she grew up in China and moved to Australia in her early twenties. I grew up in the Western world. So we come from very different worlds. But yet we kind of meet together when we cook.
She wrote this recipe down her very first recipe, and I took photos of her making it. And of course, some of the photos were in the first issue of Peddler, and when she saw it, she said, why didn't you tell me I was going to be in a magazine?! I would have dressed up. I would have worn something different. And I'm like, okay. So, I mean, there's more recipes. I want to kind of preserve. I see. I see it as like a preservation now, when I cook her recipes because I grew up in the West. My children are growing up in the West, so allow the cultural significance. Food is our main way of keeping that alive.
Kristen: Thank you so much for spending this time with us.
Hetty: Thank you. Thanks for having me Kristen, it’s been such a joy. A joy to see you again.
Kristen: (voiceover) Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Emily Hanhan, and me, Kristen Miglore. You can find all the Genius Recipes, videos and stories on our site, Food52.com. And if you have a Genius Recipe that you'd like to share, please email it to me at [email protected]. For example, are you looking for any holiday Genius Recipes? Or do you have any beloved recipes you want to send me? If you like The Genius Recipe Tapes, be sure to rate and review us. It really helps. See you next time.
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