The Joyful Kitchen Goddess
The best-beloved cookbooks are practical, no-nonsense and not for the squeamish. To make soup from a bird’s nest, “Wash carefully several times, removing tiny feathers,” instructs Mary Sia in her Classic Chinese Cookbook. Palp the windpipe of a chicken, and “if it feels stiff and cracks when pinched, the bird is sure to be old and tough.”
To anyone who grew up in the Islands, this charming collection of simple recipes will recall local families who ladled out love and stories with home-cooked meals. Born and raised in Honolulu, Sia taught cooking classes at the Richards Street YWCA for 26 years.
First published in 1956, the book’s fourth edition retains its original language and ingredients, such as sharks’ fins, that are “unacceptable” today, as a new glossary points out; Sia’s “gourmet powder” is MSG. But her glossaries abound with good, timeless ingredients–dow see, yu look, jee yau, dried fungi and seafood–and cooking methods. Twenty-two whimsical line drawings include diagrams of how to cut up chicken and fish. And it’s liberating to find recipes for generic “fish”–which makes sense in a culture in which you buy fresh, what’s on the market, every day.
Throughout, Sia, who lived in Beijing for a time, provides the history, legends and reasons that inform this venerable cuisine. Conserving fuel, for instance, makes Chinese quick-cooking techniques relevant today. Mouth-watering recipes made easy include “Steamed Fish with Black Beans” and “Sweet-sour Pig’s Shanks,” the latter served to new mothers. Asked for her favorites, granddaughter Louise Ing remembers, in an email, “the Peking meat dumplings–[the] home-made dough really makes [them] special; the beef and veggie dishes (those pages are the most marked up with shoyu stains on my old copy); the noodles with hoisin sauce; the almond cookie recipe.”
Sia teaches us that the words “deem sum” (dim sum) mean “touch the heart.” With its bright-red cover, “the color symbolizing joy,” her book makes a perfect New Year’s or Valentine’s gift. It has been handed down for generations, and will be by you.Mary Sia’s Classic Chinese Cookbook, University of Hawaii Press, 2013. Soft cover, $16.