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Food and Drink: A cheap guide to China

AS IN every country, there are many levels of cooking in China, including some that friends tell me are pretty appalling. Not everyone can afford to eat at the restaurants I visited. My interpreter, for instance, earns 1,000 yuan a month which, he said, made him relatively rich; but the average price for a meal of any class (generally enjoyed only by tourists) is 200 yuan.

Not merely out of curiosity but because I also believe that the food of a country is best tested in its humbler eateries, I sampled a fair number of cheap restaurants and food stands, where meals cost about 20 yuan, and found myself surprisingly well fed.

One of the great pleasures of frequenting such simple establishments is that the acts of cooking and eating are barely separated: you see what's being done, or you do it yourself, and you eat what you see. These restaurants are reasonably clean and perfectly friendly to the tourist, though language makes ordering problematical.

In one, I ate the Mongolian hotpot I'd been reading about for so long. It is simplicity itself, being the Chinese equivalent of a fondue Bourguignonne, save that the meat is cooked in stock rather than oil.

If you have a fondue pot, it is easy to prepare, so long as you know how to slice meat very thin.

A pot of meat stock (generally chicken) flavoured with spring onions, Chinese parsley and shredded chives is kept simmering on a charcoal brazier in front of plates containing paper-thin slices of lamb, leaves of cabbage, squares of bean curd and a bowl of sauce based on sesame paste, chillis and fish sauces, red vinegar and sugar.

You dip your selections into the stock and hold each of them there for a few seconds. Then, when you are finished, you have a superb thick soup with which to conclude your meal.

Most towns present a profusion of food stands that seem to remain open at all hours. They are generally single- dish establishments, one specialising in noodles, another in dumplings, a third sweets and so on, and they satisfy the Chinese craving for 'small eating'.

Noodles, which the Chinese invented, come in many different forms, some made of rice, others of flour and egg. Most are bought in shops and cooked at home, and though most Chinese groceries in England carry noodles, Italian pasta makes an acceptable substitute.

I have two favourites among noodles: Shanghai and Sichuan. The former are thickish and round, while the latter are often flat like tagliatelle. Both are cooked in a wok.

For the first, stir fry in very hot oil (about 3tbs) some very lean shredded pork and sliced cabbage, blanched and carefully drained. This takes about 90 seconds.

Remove, add your noodles to the pan and stir fry for a minute, or until the noodles take colour. Add about 12oz chicken stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Return pork, cabbage and seasoning (mainly white pepper), and stir fry over high heat until the sauce completely evaporates. Stir in a little more oil. Serve the noodles sprinkled with sesame oil and fresh pepper.

Sichuan noodles are no more complicated, just a lot spicier. Fresh egg noodles are best here, and you will need to buy a jar of chillied vegetables, or bottle your own - the Sichuanese greatly

prefer turnips - in vinegar with chilli peppers.

Finely dice the preserved vegetables together with dried shrimp (available at most Chinese speciality shops) that have been soaked beforehand. Stir fry the shrimp briefly in very hot oil, then drain and discard the oil.

Fry 2tps sesame seeds in the dry wok until they crackle, and set them aside. Place noodles in a pot of boiling water; when the water comes to the boil again, lower the heat, splash in a little cold water, then boil for a further five minutes.

Drain the noodles, wipe out the wok and pour in sauce made of: 2tbs each sugar, dark soy sauce, chilli sauce and sesame or peanut paste; 3tbs light soy sauce and 1tbs each of black vinegar and sesame oil; and ample chicken stock.

Bring to the boil, add vegetables, shrimp, some chopped roasted peanuts and a few chopped spring onions. Boil for two minutes and pour over noodles, sprinkling the whole with sesame seeds.

Such 'small eating' is, in fact, a meal in itself.

To cook Chinese, or to adapt Chinese cooking to local ingredients, one need not have a Chinese grocery in the neighbourhood. What is essential to 'small food' is more a matter of technique (eg, the combination of stir frying and boiling in stock).

The flavours are sharpened by the high heat and the ingredients are absorbed into the oil which coats each noodle.

This understanding of technique, of the frugality of using every ingredient in many different ways, and of cooking in the fastest, simplest manner comprises the art of Chinese cooking. What one misses most in China, besides obvious flavours such as tomato, is some diversity in the sauces. But as I pointed out in the first article, the Chinese are resistant to innovation.

We should not be. There is much that the home cook can borrow from China, and in time, when China really opens up, our own cuisines will, as have so many others, begin to make their influence felt in China. You yourself can make a beginning.

This is the final part of Keith Botsford's series on Chinese food.