Tenderheart’ tells one Chinese language-Australian chef’s tales of household, meals, loss and pleasure – ileadglobal

Tenderheart’ tells one Chinese language-Australian chef’s tales of household, meals, loss and pleasure

Hetty Lui McKinnon: A Culinary Journey Rooted in Heritage and Healing

Hetty Lui McKinnon, celebrated for her creative vegetable-based dishes, draws profound inspiration from her father, a Chinese immigrant who worked in Australia’s wholesale fruit and vegetable industry. Her childhood was steeped in the vibrant hues and fresh aromas of fruits and vegetables, a direct result of her father’s occupation.

brown wooden spatula beside black handled spatula

A Legacy of Loss and Healing

McKinnon experienced a significant loss at age 15 when her father passed away, leaving a deep void in her life. She struggled with her grief for many years, finding solace in cooking, which allowed her to reconnect with her father’s memory.

“The pain of losing someone never truly goes away; it becomes part of your soul,” McKinnon shares. “Cooking helped me reflect on his life and legacy with courage.”

In 2021, McKinnon released the acclaimed cookbook “To Asia, With Love.” Her most recent publication, “Tenderheart: A Book About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds,” is a deeply personal project that aided her in processing the emotions surrounding her father’s death.

Honoring Heritage Through Cooking

McKinnon’s recipes are deeply influenced by her Cantonese upbringing, with a strong focus on vegetable-centric dishes. Through her cooking, she maintains a connection to her heritage and aims to pass this legacy on to her children.

“Living in the West, it’s easy to lose touch with intergenerational history,” she explains. “I wanted to give my children a taste of their grandfather’s legacy.”

Highlighted Recipes from ‘Tenderheart’

Fennel and Gnocchi Salad with Fennel Frond Pesto

This salad features crunchy raw fennel, flavorful fennel frond pesto, and crispy pan-fried gnocchi. It’s versatile, allowing additions like roasted broccoli, cauliflower, or leafy greens.


  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb 10 oz (750 g) gnocchi
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 baby fennel bulbs or 1 regular fennel bulb, finely sliced
  • ¾–1 cup Fennel Frond Pesto
  • Handful of grated parmesan, pecorino, or cheddar


  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil, gnocchi, and salt. Pan-fry for 3–4 minutes until golden.
  2. Transfer to a serving plate, add fennel and pesto, and toss to coat. Top with grated cheese.

Fennel Frond Pesto:

  • 2 ½ cups fennel fronds
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • ½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Sea salt
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ¾ oz (50 g) hard cheese, finely grated


  1. Blend fennel fronds, garlic, and pumpkin seeds. Add salt and olive oil, and blend into a coarse paste.
  2. Stir in the cheese and adjust salt to taste.

Miso-Maple Sugar Snap Pea, Turnip, and Strawberry Salad

This salad balances pan-fried sugar snap peas, sweet strawberries, and a miso-maple dressing, with the option to add quinoa.


  • 1 cup white or mixed quinoa
  • 2 cups vegetable stock or water
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb sugar snap peas, trimmed
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 small turnips, finely shaved
  • 5 oz strawberries, hulled and quartered
  • Handful of mint leaves

Miso-Maple Vinaigrette:

  • 4 tsp white miso
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 tsp maple syrup
  • 4 tsp rice vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove, grated


  1. Cook quinoa in stock or water. Set aside.
  2. Whisk vinaigrette ingredients until smooth.
  3. Pan-fry sugar snap peas, season, and toss with vinaigrette.
  4. Combine quinoa, peas, turnips, strawberries, and mint. Toss with remaining vinaigrette.

Ginger and Cilantro Noodle Pancake

This dish features instant ramen noodles mixed with ginger-cilantro oil and pan-fried until crispy, showcasing McKinnon’s creativity during quarantine.


  • 3 packages instant ramen noodles, soaked in warm water
  • 5 tsp soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  • Handful of cilantro leaves
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, julienned

Ginger-Cilantro Oil:

  • 3-inch piece of ginger, chopped
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ⅓ cup neutral oil


  1. Prepare ginger-cilantro oil by heating oil and pouring it over ginger and cilantro.
  2. Drain noodles, mix with most of the ginger-cilantro oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame seeds.
  3. Pan-fry noodles until crispy on both sides.
  4. Serve with remaining ginger-cilantro oil, cilantro leaves, and ginger strips.

Reflecting on Heritage

“Tenderheart” is a heartfelt exploration of family bonds and heritage through food. McKinnon’s culinary creations are a testament to the enduring power of food in preserving memories and connecting generations.

For more recipes and stories, delve into “Tenderheart: A Cookbook About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds” by Hetty Lui McKinnon.

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