Go to a Chinese restaurant and the chances are you will dine on seafood or roast meats, perhaps with a vegetable side. This is a pity as vegetables are one of the overlooked glories of Chinese cuisine, especially in the south, with its warm, rainy climate and unrivalled diversity of produce. Chinese cooks, rich and poor, are masters at using fermented seasonings and small amounts of meat and fish to lend rich umami flavours to cheap, everyday ingredients. A few spoonfuls of preserved mustard greens are the magic seasoning that makes Sichuanese dry-fried beans irresistible. Blanched leafy greens are transformed by a libation of sizzling oil over slivers of ginger and spring onion, and a dash of good soy sauce.
As well as dishes with just a little meat (think slivered green peppers with shreds of marinated pork, a lip-tingling mapo tofu simmered with a scattering of minced beef, or garlic stems stir-fried with strips of bacon), there are "su cai hun zuo" ("vegetables cooked in a meaty way") – bamboo shoots done in the leftover liquid from a slow-cooked pork stew, rich and satisfying on a winter's day, or a wokful of mushrooms lifted by a little lard or chicken fat.
At a time when our boundless appetite for meat and fish is damaging our health and environment, it is worth remembering that there are older, kinder ways to eat. Traditionally in China, a steak or a fish would not serve just one person, but, alongside vegetable dishes, a whole family. And largely vegetarian meals, cooked in the Chinese manner, are so varied and delicious that eating less meat won't feel like a deprivation. Armed with basic seasonings and techniques, vegetables can be the stars of the table rather than a worthy afterthought.
Sichuanese chilli bean paste (dou ban jiang)
Sizzle this fermented chilli and broad bean paste gently in oil to extract its flavours, and use as a base for stir-fries and braises. It is a key ingredient in Sichuanese classics such as mapo tofu, as well as a vegetarian version of twice-cooked pork, and adds a spicy savouriness to western stews (it's also the secret ingredient in my father's shepherd's pie).
Mustard greens or tubers that have been sun-dried, rubbed with salt and spices and allowed to ferment are a fantastic addition to vegetable dishes, especially those with peas and beans. They are also a key ingredient in dan dan noodles.
Fermented beancurd (dou fu ru)
This gorgeous, punchy relish is the Chinese equivalent of roquefort. Mash up two cubes and add to a spinach stir-fry for gorgeous umami creaminess, or just eat – sparingly – from the jar with rice or congee. It may seem weird at first, but it's addictive. (Try it on toast, a Chinese version of anchovy paste.)
Hot cooking oil brings out the glamour of spring onions and ginger. Sliver and strew them over freshly blanched vegetables. Then pour over your oil, which should sizzle dramatically. Finish with a dash of soy sauce, diluted if you wish with a little hot water. Alternatively, gently fry crushed spring onions (with dried shrimps if you wish) until dark brown and aromatic, and use to dress noodles.
Fats and stocks
Get good lard (or make your own) and keep the fat that solidifies after roasting pork or chicken, grilling bacon or making stock. Use the lard or chicken fat (nature's own MSG) and home-made stock to add intensity and enhance the savoury flavours of a wokful of vegetables.
Sichuanese salad dressings
Mix soy sauce, chinkiang vinegar, sugar, chilli oil (lots) and a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil to dress raw cucumber, broad beans or western salads. Add a little ground roasted sichuan pepper for a zesty tingle on the lips, and sesame paste for a more substantial sauce. Don't worry about quantities: play around as you would with an ordinary salad dressing.
• Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking is published by Bloomsbury, price £25. To order a copy for £20 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.
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