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

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

Hetty Lui McKinnon grew up immersed in an array of fresh produce, thanks to her father, a Chinese immigrant involved in Australia’s wholesale fruit and vegetable business. Her childhood was painted with the vibrant colors and scents of fruits and vegetables.

When McKinnon was just 15, her father passed away, leaving her devastated. The grief was profound, and she avoided confronting it for years. Eventually, cooking dishes that reminded her of her father became a way to find solace and process her loss.

“The pain of losing someone never truly goes away. It becomes part of your soul,” McKinnon reflects. “Cooking allowed me to think about his life and his legacy with courage.”

black wooden table and chairs

In 2021, McKinnon released the popular cookbook “To Asia, With Love.” More recently, she published “Tenderheart: A Book About Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds.” Writing “Tenderheart” made her confront many emotions tied to her father’s passing.

Celebrating Heritage Through Food

McKinnon’s recipes are deeply influenced by her Cantonese upbringing, with a particular focus on vegetable-based dishes. Through cooking, she finds a connection to her heritage and hopes to pass this connection on to her children.

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

Recipes from ‘Tenderheart’

Fennel and Gnocchi Salad with Fennel Frond Pesto

This salad showcases double fennel—a blend of crunchy raw fennel and fennel frond pesto. Paired with crispy pan-fried gnocchi, this dish layers anise flavors harmoniously. The recipe is versatile, allowing for the addition of roasted broccoli or cauliflower, leafy greens like spinach or watercress, or even stuffed pasta instead of gnocchi.


  • 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. Drizzle in olive oil, add gnocchi, and season with 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

Turn fennel fronds into a mellow, anise-flavored pesto, enhanced with toasted pumpkin seeds for added nuttiness and sweetness.


  • 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. Adjust salt to taste.

Exploring More Recipes

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

This salad balances the crunch of lightly pan-fried sugar snap peas with the sweetness of strawberries and a miso-maple dressing. It’s adaptable and can be made with or without 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 innovative dish uses instant ramen noodles, flavored with a vibrant ginger-cilantro oil, and pan-fried until crispy. It’s a versatile and quick recipe inspired by quarantine creativity.


  • 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.


McKinnon’s “Tenderheart” offers a heartfelt journey through recipes that celebrate family bonds and heritage. Her culinary creations are a testament to the enduring power of food in preserving memories and connecting generations.

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

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