Book Review: Mary Sia's Classic Chinese Cookbook

Old-School Cooking: A legendary local cookbook gets an update.
Reprinted with permission from Mary Sia’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, University of Hawaii Press, 2013.

photo: david croxford

"Oh, are those long-lost recipes, the stuff that grandma used to make?” asked a chef who spied Mary Sia’s Classic Chinese Cookbook on our desk. Well, we’re not sure they were ever lost—Mary Sia’s cookbook was first printed in 1956, and its fourth edition was released this year—but they could very well be what grandma used to make, if your grandma was from Beijing and cooked homestyle Cantonese food in Hawaii.

Mary Sia taught Chinese cooking for so many years in the Richards’ Street YWCA that it named its kitchen after her. Some of her recipes are definitely old school, with liberal use of pork caul fat, and recipe names are sometimes un-PC, like the coolie pancakes (aka green-onion pancakes). There are recipes to make your own shrimp chips, steamed buns, oxtail soup, bitter melon stuffed with pork, as well as Chinese New Year favorites such as dumplings and gau.

The new edition also offers an all-new food glossary providing up-to-date names for ingredients (i.e. “gourmet powder,” now known as MSG) and substitutions (dried shrimp instead of shrimp eggs).

Birds’ nest soup can be made with black or white nests, but the white variety is preferred because they contain  fewer  feathers and other debris.


  • ½ pound ground pork
  • 3 water chestnuts
  • 2 tablespoons green onions, cut in ¼-inch lengths
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sherry
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Peel water chestnuts and crush. Combine all ingredients and mix well. Put in a deep bowl and steam 25 minutes. Serves 2.