Waking up to the sound of the wok is one of Hetty McKinnon’s favourite childhood memories.
The sizzle of oil and its fast-travelling aroma throughout her family’s Sydney home was better than an alarm clock. The wok-fired soundtrack usually marked a special occasion – Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival – that had inspired her mother to get up early to prepare sesame-studded jian dui pastries.
She says it’s the “in-between moments” around food (shopping for ingredients with your mum or trying to recreate her prized dumpling recipe) that power this publication.
It’s surprising that a bestselling author like McKinnon is drawn to self-publishing a magazine – her Community cookbook has sold 44,000 copies and has never left the lifestyle bestseller charts (that’s 178 weeks and counting); she could’ve easily gotten someone to bankroll this, but Peddler Journal is an incredibly personal DIY project that’s been brewing for 18 months.
With the help of some contributors (Luisa Brimble, Ebony Bizys, Shirley Cai to name a few), she’s done the whole thing independently – right down to lugging pallets of the finished 110-page copies into her current Brooklyn home. (Luckily, her good-Samaritan neighbour was walking by when all the boxes arrived and helped fast-track McKinnon’s magazine-carrying trips by carting half the packages inside.)
The contemplative pace of Peddler Journal is a deliberate step away from megawatt celebrity chefs and social media’s insatiable metabolism for over-the-top food trends.
“Even though I live in one of the most famous food cities in the world, I found myself becoming less and less interested in dining out at restaurants – which I’ve always loved! – and much more interested in the home as a source of cooking inspiration,” she says.
“What is it about food that makes me happy? For me, it is always about cooking from home and the memories that are conjured, and the traditions that are honoured around our family table. This is Peddler.”
So the magazine is about those family table moments.
Including the childhood dishes that leave a mark on you - literally, in the case of Kim Tran, who has a scar from helping her mother serve pho; the broth spilt onto her chest and left a burn that’s still there. (It also left a mark metaphorically, as this daughter of Vietnamese refugees gave up a career in law to run So.9, a Sydney restaurant that’s a tribute to her parents.)
Trying to recreate your mother’s recipes is a theme throughout the book.
For mums, declassifying these tightly held secrets is a big deal, whether it’s how to make Korean squash porridge or stir-fried tomato and egg rice that’s sweetened with rock sugar.
McKinnon herself steps up to the lifetime challenge of finally learning to make her mother’s gok jai from scratch.
“These are Cantonese dumplings that my mum always made for birthdays or celebrations … As a teenager, we made these together,” she says. “My mother is very opinionated in the kitchen, and she would spend the whole time critiquing my crimping methods. Every now and then, I got a compliment!”
“One very funny story about my mum’s gok jais is that she always used a prized silver contraption to flatten the pastry into circles … When I moved to America, I was amazed to find out that her dumpling roller was actually a tortilla press. A perfect example of cultural confusion right there!”
Peddler is about giving a multicultural perspective to food and McKinnon “felt myself becoming ‘more Chinese’ as I worked on the issue”, perhaps because she was extensively thinking about her Asian-Australian upbringing. The magazine also gives those memories a contemporary twist.
“Peddler is absolutely a way for me to reimagine traditional meals as a vegetarian dish. It’s possible!”
Before becoming vegetarian at 19, “I had eaten and tried every meat known to humans”, she says – pig intestine and tripe were her favourites. The magazine reveals her recipes for vegan ma po tofu, Brussels sprouts and cabbage okonomiyaki and Lao-style crispy rice salad. There are also instructions for making Kim Tran’s vegetarian pho.
“A big part of the first issue – Chinatown – is about showing people how to eat Asian food without the meat,” she says.
She remembers a guest at Perth Writer’s Festival telling her, “I don’t understand how you can be Chinese and a vegetarian because there are no vegetables in Chinese cooking”.
“This question really floored me because it could not be further from the truth.”
She also has other reasons for choosing Chinatown as the first issue’s theme.
“Wherever I am in the world, Chinatown is my safe place, my happy place. The smells are the same. The sounds are the same. The foods are the same,” she says.
“Now, being in New York and away from my family, I often retreat to Chinatown to feel like I’m home.”
“When Donald Trump became President last year, I, along with many Americans and people around the world, felt inconsolable. Chinatown saved me during those days,” she says.
In between working at Neighborhood, the community kitchen space she’s just opened with her friend Jodi Moreno in Brooklyn, she’s starting to work on Peddler’s next issue – another source of comfort, childhood.
“[It] will be an observation of food and memories from our formative years,” she says. “It’s about the food that makes us feel happy.”
This is one of those rugged dishes so typical of Northern China, where wheat-based noodles, garlic, black vinegar and plenty of dried chillies rule. Any wide, dried wheat, ‘ribbon’-style noodles you find at a Chinese food store will be good here although alternatively, these work really well with home made hand-cut noodles.
A favourite street food in Taiwan, these cold sesame noodles are similar to versions of the Sichuan noodle dish, dan dan mian. The Taiwanese interpretation uses wheat noodles and is covered in a creamy sesame, peanut and soy sauce. The dish is so popular in Taiwan, you can even find it at 7-Eleven stores.