The first Chinese recipes I ever attempted were from Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook. It was the early 90s, and I’d been a keen cook since childhood, but Chinese cuisine was mysterious to me. Yan-kit So’s book was the perfect place to start, with its clear instructions and mouthwatering photographs of every dish. I started to cook, following the recipes blindly at first, but with increasing confidence. One evening, I made a few dishes for friends, including the braised fish Hunan-Szechwan style, with its heavenly sauce of ginger, garlic and pickled chilli. I’ve never forgotten the rapturous silence around the table.

Later, as a junior restaurant reviewer for Time Out, I met Yan-kit, the magazine’s ad-hoc Chinese culinary consultant, and we became friends. She was great fun, interested in everything and wildly sociable. Physically tiny, she was always immaculately dressed, often in radiant colours. She was an exquisite cook and threw legendary dinner parties, where guests might include musicians, journalists and famous novelists. She and I dined out at restaurants across London, from holes in the wall in Chinatown to the Oriental at the Dorchester Hotel. If I was lucky, she would invite me back to her house afterwards for a glass of wine and some homemade lotus root crisps.

Yan-kit originally learned to cook as a postgraduate student in London, haunted, as she says in the introduction to this volume, by the flavours of her Hong Kong childhood. Years later, trying to recover after the untimely death of her American husband, Briton Martin Jr, she began to give cooking classes, and then to write, scandalising some of her Chinese friends who thought professional kitchen work indecorous for someone of her social background. In her books, the lucidity of her instructions and the acuity of her palate were complemented by her academic rigour. The recipient of a starred first-class degree in history from Hong Kong University, she had exacting standards. Her Classic Chinese Cookbook won both the Glenfiddich and the Andre Simon awards, and she became a leading light in the Oxford Symposium on Food, where she sat alongside luminaries such as Alan Davidson, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden.

She wrote five books in all, including Classic Food of China, an exploration of Chinese culinary culture with a superb historical introduction, before her death from cancer in December 2001. Despite her major contribution to western understanding of Chinese food, Yan-kit is less well known today than some of her peers. But both her Classic Chinese Cookbook and Classic Food of China remain essential reading for anyone interested in Chinese food. And I still think of Yan-kit almost every time I steam a fish or stir-fry Chinese broccoli with ginger.

Steamed scallops in the shell

A Cantonese dish at its simplest and best. The fresh scallops are steamed with just a touch of garlic, then served with a sauce to add zest to their natural sweetness.

Serves 6-8
20 large scallops
groundnut or corn oil for deep-frying
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
4-6 large spring onions, green parts only, cut into rounds

For the sauce
4-6 large spring onions, white parts only, cut into silken threads (slivers)
3-4tbsp groundnut or corn oil
2cm (¾ inch) fresh ginger root, peeled and cut into silken threads (slivers)
3-4 fresh green chillies, seeded and cut into rounds
2tbsp thick soy sauce
2tbsp thin soy sauce
2tbsp water

Ask the fishmonger to open the scallops on the cup side of the shell rather than on the flat side. If they have already been opened on the flat side, ask for the cup shells so you can transfer the scallop meat to them. Remove the frills or rims, sandy and black impurities and the muscles, leaving only the white meat and the corals or roes. Separate the corals from the meat; save the corals for another recipe or freeze them. Rinse the scallop meat and pat dry, leaving them on the shells.

Prepare the sauce: divide the spring onions into 2 portions and put into 2 serving bowls. Heat a wok until smoke rises. Add the oil and swirl it around, lower the heat, then add the ginger and chilli. Remove from the heat. After a few seconds, add the soy sauces and water and bring to simmering point. Pour this over the spring onion in the bowls.

Half fill a wok or deep-fryer with oil. Heat to a temperature of 180C (350F) or until a cube of stale bread browns in 60 seconds. Put the garlic into a small wire sieve. Dip the sieve into the oil momentarily 3-4 times or until the garlic has taken on colour. Save the oil for other deep-frying purposes.

Place 4-5 pieces of garlic and the same amount of green spring onion on each scallop. Place the scallops in a wok or steamer; some shells can perch on top of other shells as long as they are not pressing down on the meat.

Steam over a high heat for about 7-10 minutes. The scallops will have turned opaque and be just cooked. There will be juice in the shell.

Remove each shell carefully, taking care not to spill the juice, and put on a large serving platter or on individual plates. Serve hot.

To eat, put a small amount of sauce on the meat, then break up to absorb the sauce. As host or hostess, do encourage your guests to pick up the shell and drink the tasty juice as well.

Hot and sour soup

Pungent, peppery hot and slightly glutinous in consistency, this Szechwan and Peking peasant soup surprises the palate with its tastes and aftertastes. It originally called for a special ingredient: fresh chicken’s or duck’s blood. I must confess, however, that I am quite happy to do without it. Indeed, in restaurants outside China this soup is invariably made without blood.

Serves 6-8
100g (4oz) lean pork
6 dried Chinese mushrooms, reconstituted (see tip below)
15g (½oz) cloud ears, reconstituted (see tip below)
25g (1oz) golden needles, reconstituted (see tip below)
2 cakes bean curd, drained
2tbsp potato flour
4tbsp water
1.5 litres (2½ pints) prime stock (see recipe below)
2 eggs, lightly beaten with 2tsp oil and pinch salt
25-50g (12oz) fresh coriander leaves, torn into pieces

For the prime stock (makes 1.7 litres)
700g (1½lb) chicken thighs, drumsticks and necks
700g (1½lb) mostly lean pork, without rind
700g (1½lb) ham or mild gammon, without rind

For the marinade
⅛tsp salt
1tsp thick soy sauce
3 turns black pepper mill
1tsp Shaohsing wine or medium dry sherry
1tsp potato flour
1-2tbsp water
1tsp sesame oil

For the seasoning
1½tsp salt
¾tsp sugar
1tbsp thin soy sauce
1tbsp thick soy sauce
3-4tbsp rice or white wine vinegar
1-1½tsp ground black pepper
dashes of sesame oil (optional)

To make the prime stock, put the chicken, pork and ham or gammon into a deep stockpot or saucepan and add 2.8 litres (5 pints) water. Bring to the boil and skim off the scum that surfaces until the water is clear.

Partially cover with a lid. Lower the heat to maintain a fast simmer and cook for about 3 hours. The liquid, which should have reduced to about 1.7 litres (3 pints), is the prime stock. Pour through a sieve into a storage container.

For the soup, slice the lean pork into matchstick-sized strips. Put into a bowl.

Prepare the marinade: add the salt, soy sauce, pepper and wine or sherry to the pork. Sprinkle with the potato flour and stir in the water in the same direction to coat the meat. Leave to marinate for 15–30 minutes or longer. Blend in the sesame oil.

Drain and squeeze out excess water from the mushrooms, cloud ears and golden needles but leave damp. Slice the mushrooms into the thinnest possible slivers. Cut the golden needles into 6-cm (2-inch) sections. Break up or cut the cloud ears into similarly sized pieces.

Slice the bean curd cakes into 6-mm (¼-inch) thick pieces and then carefully slice again into strips 2.5cm x 6mm (1 x ¼ inch).

In a small bowl, dissolve the potato flour in the water.

In a large saucepan add the mushroom, cloud ears and golden needles to the stock and season with the salt, sugar and soy sauces. Bring to the boil and add the pork, separating with a pair of chopsticks or a fork. Then add the bean curd and as soon as the soup returns to the boil, slowly stir in the well-stirred dissolved potato flour. Slowly bring to the boil again.

Stream in the beaten egg through the gap of a pair of chopsticks or along the back of a fork, moving the chopsticks or fork in a circular motion at the same time. Remove from the heat and cover the pan for 45 seconds to allow the egg to set in tender flakes.

Add the coriander and stir to mix.

Stir in the vinegar and then the black pepper for seasoning.

Serve piping hot. Stir in dashes of sesame oil, if desired, just before serving. Put extra vinegar and black pepper on the table for those who like it really hot and pungent.

Note: Leftover soup can be reheated but a little more vinegar and pepper may have to be added to renew the sharp taste.

Tip: reconstituting ingredients
Rinse ingredients. Put in a bowl and pour on enough warm water to cover by about 4cm (1½ inches). Leave for about 20-30 minutes or until they have become swollen and soft.

Fish fragrant aubergine

In Szechwan, there is a range of dishes which emulate the fragrance of fish because the condiments used to flavour them are the same as those traditionally used to flavour fish. This flavour is achieved by blending Szechwan chilli paste with garlic, ginger and spring onion in oil and then allowing this sauce to impregnate the main ingredients cooked in it. The finishing touch is the addition of wine, sugar and vinegar which enhance the tastes and aftertastes, the hallmark of Szechwanese cooking. It is delicious served either hot or cold.

Serves 6 with 3 other dishes
15g (½oz) cloud ears, reconstituted (see tip above)
2 aubergines, about 700g (1½lb)
groundnut or corn oil for deep-frying, plus 1½tbsp groundnut or corn oil
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
6mm (¼ inch) fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
3 spring onions, cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) sections, white and green parts separated
1-1½tbsp Szechwan chilli paste (see below)
1tbsp Shaohsing wine or medium dry sherry
1tsp salt
1½tsp sugar
1tbsp thin soy sauce
½tsp potato flour, dissolved in 3tbsp water
1tbsp rice or white wine vinegar

For the Szechwan chilli paste
dried red chillies
ground yellow bean sauce

To make the Szechwan chilli paste, grind sufficient red chillies in a food processor or use a mortar and pestle.

In a bowl, mix the chilli and the yellow bean sauce, in the proportion of 1tbsp ground chilli to 2tbsp ground yellow bean sauce. (Natives of Szechwan will no doubt find this proportion too mild, while people unused to spicy foods will find it almost too hot. Use your judgement to suit your own taste.) The chilli paste will keep for months in a jar stored in a cool place.

Drain the cloud ears and cut up into narrow strips.

Peel alternate strips of the aubergine skin, lengthwise. (If all the skin is peeled, the aubergine shrinks too much when cooked.) Slice each aubergine lengthwise into 4-5 pieces according to diameter, then lengthwise again into strips and then cut crosswise into the pieces the size of potato chips.

Half fill a wok or deep-fryer with oil. Heat to a temperature of 180C (350F) or until a cube of stale bread browns in 60 seconds. Put in all the aubergine chips and deep-fry for 2 minutes. Remove and drain well on kitchen paper. (This step can be done a few hours ahead.)

Heat a wok over high heat until smoke rises. Add 1½tbsp oil and swirl it around. Add the garlic, which will sizzle and take on colour almost instantly, then add the ginger and white spring onion, stirring a few times. Stir in the chilli paste and add the aubergine and cloud ears. If the cloud ears make a cracking sound, reduce the heat. Sprinkle with the wine or sherry and stir in the salt, sugar and soy sauce to mix. Add the well-stirred dissolved potato flour and the green spring onion, stirring as the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle with the vinegar and quickly stir thoroughly before removing to a warm serving plate. Serve immediately.

Braised fish Hunan-Szechwan style

The essence of this dish is the gradual absorption of the Szechwan chilli paste, a favourite seasoning in Hunan-Szechwan cuisine.

Serves 4 with 2 other dishes
1 sea bass, grey mullet or trout, about 625-700g (1lb 6oz-1lb 8oz), cleaned with head left on
½tsp salt
250ml groundnut or corn oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2.5cm (1 inch) fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2-4tbsp Szechwan chilli paste (see recipe on page 42) or hot soy bean paste
1tbsp Shaohsing wine or medium dry sherry
½tsp sugar
120ml clear stock or water
1tbsp chilli oil
6-8 spring onions, green parts only, cut into small rounds

Blot the fish dry. Rub salt all over the fish including the cavity. Leave to stand for about 15 minutes.

Heat a wok over a high heat until smoke rises. Pour in the oil. Tip the wok carefully to swirl it all around the sloping edges. Pour all but 30ml (2tbsp) oil back into a container.

Lower the heat. Add the fish at once and brown for about 2 minutes. Slip 2 metal spatulas underneath the fish and turn over carefully. Brown the other side for about 2 minutes. Remove to a plate and keep nearby.

Turn up the heat. Add another 30ml (2tbsp) oil to the wok and heat until smoke rises. Now add the garlic and ginger and, as they sizzle, add the Szechwan chilli or hot soy bean paste, wine or sherry and sugar. Pour in the stock or water and bring to the boil, stirring to mix. Return the fish to the wok, lower the heat, cover and simmer in the sauce for about 12-15 minutes. Turn the fish over carefully and simmer, covered, for about 12-15 minutes until the fish is cooked and some of the sauce has been absorbed.

Remove the cover. Turn up the heat to reduce the sauce, spooning it on to the fish continually. Remove only the fish to a warm serving plate.

Add the hot chilli oil to the sauce, then the spring onion. Stir and cook for a few seconds, then scoop the sauce on to the fish. Serve immediately.

Stir-fried Chinese broccoli with beef

The Chinese broccoli in this dish, with its distinctive flavour similar to asparagus, goes especially well with the velvety beef slices. If it is not available, use plain broccoli as a substitute.

Serves 4 with 3 other dishes
100-175g (4-6oz) beef, fillet, rump or skirt, trimmed
450-700g (1-1 ½lb) Chinese broccoli, trimmed
4-4½tbsp groundnut or corn oil
4 thin slices fresh ginger root, peeled
¼-⅓tsp salt
¼-⅓tsp sugar
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut diagonally into slivers
2 spring onions, cut into 2.5-cm (1-inch) sections, white and green parts separated
½tbsp Shaohsing wine or medium dry sherry

For the marinade
¼-⅓tsp salt
¼-⅓tsp sugar
1tsp thick soy sauce
3-4 turns black pepper mill
1tsp Shaohsing wine or medium dry sherry
½tsp potato flour
1tbsp water
1tsp groundnut or corn oil

For the sauce
½-¾tsp potato flour
3-5tbsp water
1-1½tbsp oyster sauce
½tbsp thick soy sauce

Cut the beef across the grain into slices, about 2.5 x 4cm (1 x 1½ inches) and 5mm (⅕ inch) thick. Put into a bowl.

Prepare the marinade: add the salt, sugar, soy sauce, pepper, wine or sherry, potato flour and water to the beef. Stir in the same direction until well coated. Leave to marinate for 15-30 minutes. Blend in the oil.

Cut the Chinese broccoli into pieces, about 7.5-10cm (3-4 inches) long.

Prepare the sauce: mix together the potato flour, water, oyster sauce and soy sauce.

Heat a wok until hot. Add 1½-2tbsp of the oil and swirl it around. Add the ginger, stir and add the Chinese broccoli. Sliding the wok scoop or metal spatula to the bottom of the wok, turn and toss in rapid succession for about 1 minute, adjusting the heat if the broccoli begins to burn. Add the salt and sugar. Now add about 4-5tbsp of water, bring to the boil, then continue to cook, covered, over a moderate heat for about 4-5 minutes. The broccoli should be tender yet crunchy. Remove with a perforated disc to a warm serving plate and keep warm nearby.

Wash and dry the wok. Reheat over a high heat until smoke rises. Add the remaining oil and swirl it around. Add the garlic, then stir in the white spring onion. Add the beef and turn and toss for about 30 seconds to brown. Splash in the wine or sherry around the side of the wok, continuing to stir as it sizzles. Add the well-stirred sauce to the wok. Toss and stir as the sauce thickens. Add the green spring onion and remove from the heat. Scoop the beef mixture over the Chinese broccoli. Serve immediately.

Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cookbook by Yan-kit So (Dorling Kindersley, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.44, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.