Being a Chinese born in the southwestern side of China, I grew up into one of the most powerful cuisines in the world today. For this reason, I understand the recipes quite well. I have friends who aren’t native Chinese but they love the cuisine deeply.
The problem normally comes when they want to recreate the same meals back home yet they don’t use the ingredients we use. If you are going to create the authentic Chinese cuisine just use the authentic ingredients.
There are hundreds of spices that we use in different meals. They are in fact the reason for the flavorful meals that is popularly loved across the globe. This article is going to guide you to the spices you should have if you are going to enjoy the meals.
The Chinese Common Spices
1. Star anise
This can basically be listed as one of the common spices that you find in Chinese cuisine. It’s frequently used in the different meals than most others as you will see below. To describe it, notice that it looks like the 8-pointed star seed pods.
It grows as dark brown pods made of 6 to 8 segments and with each of them containing seeds. It’s a product from the evergreen plant that is from Southwest China. Star anise also grows in Spain, France, Philippines, Morocco, India and Italy.
It further has the taste of licorice and is used by most chefs to deliver that flavor. For the Chinese, this is not only a delicious spice but it’s also healthy and nutritious. It’s mostly used together with the high yand herbs and spices.
The spice is one of the Chinese five spice powder that is made into powder form and added to various other meals.
We often add it to soups and veggies that we are boiling. You will also find it added to almost every kind of meal.
Star anise is also used in desserts and cocktails. You can add it to the alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Some people even use it to garnish their food.
The star anise is further best used for its medicinal purposes like enhancing the digestion, increasing libido, alleviating the colic and arthritis.
Most people use it in the liquor production specifically in the production of the liquor Galliano. In the Indian cuisine, the spice is used to produce biryani and masala chai. It will also work as an anti-influenza compound.
2. The 5-spice powder
For those in the west, the 5-spice powder may be an equivalent of the garam masala. It features the cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, fennel and cloves. This traditional and common spice is a blend of different flavors.
Its sweet, sour pungent salty and bitter.
It’s mostly used to season meats and poultry in the spice rubs or marinades. It’s aromatic thus it gives your meats a blend of different flavors and aromas.
3. Cinnamon sticks
Being one of the major five spices it’s commonly used in various savory dishes. They are found in all parts of the globe. You may find it used to flavour various braising dishes in the country. You may use it for the red pork. You can have the ground form of the sticks
This is another one of the Chinese 5 spice powder and in this blend, they add the licorice flavour. You will find that the entire fennel seed is edible. You may use them in the meat and poultry dishes.
5. Sichuan peppercorn
This is commonly used in the Sichuan cuisine. They are normally the berries from the prickly ash tree. They have been in Chinese cuisine for ages. Until the introduction of chilis in the Chinese market the peppercorn acted as the source of spiciness.
They are used together with the chilli to produce the numbing sensation and flavour. The numbing sensation called ma which will give your food an extra kick.
Although it’s popular among the people of Sichuan, the Chinese chefs across the country like to use it in their savory dishes. It’s often sold in two forms either the whole or powder form. You may use the whole form for stir-frying, braising and hotpot.
The ground form which is used in the salad dressings, marinating and dumpling is the common type you will find in the western markets. If you buy the whole ones, you should first grind it in a motor or spice grinder. You may use it in various noodle dishes, the chicken and meat recipes.
This kind of Sichuan peppercorn has a strong aroma with the lemony flavour. It further gives you the tingly numbing sensation which will stimulate your taste buds and smells. It appears red in color and it will go well with your food and chilli sauce.
Buy this type and use it for all the unique Sichuan meals.
This acts as the strong and pungent spice that is needed for various meals. It’s one of the five spice powder and you may use it in powder form or whole form. You will find it popularly used in the Chinese and western cuisine. It works in both braised and stewed meals.
It comes from an evergreen tree that has the short, lance-like leaves with unique pink flowers. You pick the buds by hand then dry them before you add them to herbal ingredients. What makes the cloves popular is its essential oil.
It has the antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. It has the pungent and warm properties which will heal your stomach and spleen. They will treat the diarrhoea, poor appetite and nausea.
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Cloves being the immature unopened flower buds of a tropical tree has an aromatic and flavourful purpose. It’s used for its medicinal purposes. You can use the cloves in the season blends. They offer the warm, sweet and aromatic flavors.
This is another spice that is often used when making the various meal styles in this country. It’s often dried to make powder and chilli flakes. The flakes, paste and powder are used in the various styles of cooking.
You will find them used in most parts of the Northern and Southern China area. In the southern region, they mix the chilli and the peppercorn to produce the tangy flavour and bitter taste. Those from Hunan China, on the other hand, mix it with vinegar to make it sour and hot.
You will find it used in the stir-frying process, sautéing, steaming and smoking. Some people make it into a sauce thus they have it in form of chilli sauce.
8. Chilli powder
Since we love spicy food, chilli powder is one of the most important spices we use. The Chinese style of chilli powder is a combination of Sichuan peppers and dried chilis, cumin, garlic, coriander, allspice, cloves and oregano.
For most people, the thought of cardamom brings to mind the spice that is often used in Indian cuisine. However, this happens to be another essential spice in China as well. We mostly use it in red cooked beef and other kinds of stew.
I know that it also goes well with pork any time.
10. Bay leaves
This is quite common among both the Chinese and western people. In our culture Bay leaves are often used whenever you are cooking meat. The essence is to reduce meat odour and instead infuse it with a great aroma and flavour.
You may also use it when preparing the vegetable pickles. Since its aromatic, you may also find it being used on the different soups and sauces. It will also deliver a mild and menthol scent. Always remember to remove leaves once you have cooked them.
Notice that, while the bay leaves are from the laurel plant the decorative type of laurel plant is usually poisonous and aren’t to be used in food. It’s best to buy from the grocery store as only the good ones are chosen.
The bay leaves are aromatic, bright green and glossy when they are still fresh. This is what people go for in their desirable food. When cooking it, always remember to remove them once the food is cooked.
Also, use them in minimal amounts as they may overpower your dishes since they have a strong flavour. They are popularly used in the Sichuan and Shanghai meals.
11. The dried tangerine and orange peels
This traditional spice may be uncommon today but it’s loved by many as it helps in making the ancient cuisines. The fruit’s skin is even store bought and used to flavour the Chinese favorite meals. You can use it to make the tangerine beef and orange chicken.
Also, you can decide to make this spice at home when you take the peels and let them dry out and when they are nicely dried you simply add them into the stew and braises.
12. White pepper
This is a common spice and seasoning in Chinese cuisine. Most people think it’s the same as the black pepper with a difference in color but it’s not. Although it also comes from the pepper plant just as black pepper, it’s the dried fruit that has its coat or outer skin removed.
The white pepper is made when you let the pepper fruits ripen, its soaked in water for up to 10 days where the fermentation occurs. After the fermentation the skin is removed and, in the process, you also remove the piperine compound and some volatile oils.
This is what causes the difference in its flavour and heat component. You may describe it as being the fruity version of the pepper plant that has a great aroma. To describe its flavour, we may say it usually has a smoky, earthy and musty flavour.
It’s best to cook the food and add the white pepper towards the end of the cooking process to avoid the bitter flavour that it may produce. The black pepper normally works as its substitution when you intend to use it in small amounts.
You may use it in some soups like the hot and sour soup. You will further use it in the Vietnamese soups and pork dishes. You can add the spicy flavour to any light colored food
This features the tangy taste that is best used to flavour your soups and stews, fish and potato. It gives you the fresh flavour and would work best as an alternative to salt. Use it to make all the meals that the family will enjoy especially because it only has a mild pepper flavour.
13. Black pepper
We can’t discuss the white pepper without thinking of the black pepper. They are commonly used in different dishes in Chinese cuisine. The black pepper plant is cultivated for its fruit which is plucked and dried to be used as a spice.
Its known for its traditional medicinal purpose. The major difference between it and white pepper is that you won’t remove the coat in this. It features the pungent aroma and sharp flavour with balanced hotness.
Its mainly loved in the Guangdong cuisine but you may use it in cooking beef, chicken grills and stews.
14. Chinese red pepper powder
Red pepper powder features the hot dried chilis that you will find in kung pao chicken, Sichuan and Hunan meals. The chilis work best in the flavouring of the meals. When they are whole you should remove them before the food is fully cooked.
They look like the cayenne pepper that has the extra pop and are often thin. The color is usually red when they mature. They are musty, spicy yet neutral in taste. They are the perfect combination when you need them as the heat source.
They don’t offer a complex flavour to your meals thus they are best used in the Asian cuisine.
Though this red pepper powder is Korean, it’s mostly used in Chinese cooking and other Asian styles of cooking. It’s, in fact, a must have spice for your day to day spicy cooking.
15. The black cardamom
They appear as 1 inch in length. They are dark brown to black in color with wrinkly, dried and tough skin. Apparently, the cardamom happens to be amongst the most expensive spice in the world today.
It works when you dry it in the open fire thus producing the distinct smoky aroma as well as the flavour. Nevertheless, there’s a different version called green cardamom which should never be used in place of the black cardamom because it has a stronger aroma.
To describe it, you have the funky flavour with menthol and minty aroma. It has the resin and camphor notes. It works as a warming spice. It’s commonly used in different Indian dishes but they can also be used in Chinese jin jin braised meat.
If you wish, you may have it in the five-spice powder of China. They are sometimes used in treating the various stomach ailments, dental ailments and other common infections. I have used it severally for gum problems.
The Chinese five spice substitute
For you to know the ideal substitute for the Chinese five spice you should know the flavour they bring to your food. The flavors you are going for include: sour and bitter, salty, sweet and pungent flavour.
If you can have other spices that represent these flavors, then you have your substitute. The cayenne powder, cinnamon and cloves to give you a good substitution to this flavors. You could further use the sambuca spice to add the anise flavour which is found in the Chinese five spice.
I don’t know of any meals that does not use ginger as part of the must-have spice. You should use it alongside the garlic in your stir-fries, soups and sauces. You may have the ginger in different forms: sometimes it’s fresh, other times ground while other times pickles.
Notice that, ground ginger must never substitute the fresh ones as they differ in flavors and taste. Ginger is mostly used in the Cantonese style of meals which normally has light seasoning. You may also use it sparingly in the Szechuan cuisine.
They are usually readily accessible in grocery stores. However, the pickled ginger is found in the Asian markets. Always store the unpeeled ginger in the vegetable crisper section of the refrigerator having wrapped it in a plastic bag.
This is used in almost every meal in most cuisines across the globe. It’s mostly used for the seasoning purpose and when cooking your stir-fries in the country. Garlic has a pungent aroma and has a unique flavour to your different meals.
It’s classified in the onion family. They further have vast health uses and have been encouraged by most health practitioners. They are usually combined with the ginger and used in dishes which include stir-fries and sauces. They are also great marinade ingredients.
For more information on the garlic lifespan, read how long does garlic last.
18. Curry powder
If you like making the curries you will need to use this powder. It’s a spicy powder which is made when you blend the various herbs and spices that include cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek, nutmeg among other different kinds of spices.
You can find the different kinds of curry powder and they are used in different flavour profiles of your meals. They have the concentrated flavors and will work in your soups and sauces, stews and salads among other unique main meal dishes.
Curry powder is famously used in Indian cuisine. Its also used in different parts of China. The common one that I often use is the madras curry powder which is used in making Mei fun noodles among other meals. Its yellow in color and has a rich fragrant for you to use.
19. Sesame seeds
These ones are essential in Chinese cooking. They are mostly used for sweet treats and at times they are used for accent or garnishing the food. Since sesame has a general nutty flavour, they add a nutty flavour and crunchy taste to the meal.
You can have the white or black sesame seeds. They are both used in the different parts of Chinese cooking. They are heat tolerant and can stay on your pantry or refrigerator. There are the toasted and non-toasted sesame seeds that you will find in the market.
20. Turmeric powder
It has a rich yellow color and works best as part of the essential curry powder ingredients. It works as a great herb and is a good addition to your curry meals.
21. Monosodium glutamate
The MSG is quite common and is used in the reproduction of the natural occurring glutamates. It’s mostly used in flavoring of the processed meals as well as restaurant foods. The MSG adds the unique flavour and a dash to your authentic Chinese meals.
The problem with this is that most people react to the combination of the spice that’s why although it really influences your meal not many people use it. It adds the umami flavour and if you wish you can buy the MSG below from Amazon.
22. Whole allspice berries
Although not so common in China, there are meals that specifically use allspice. Some of those meals include Chinese New Year Nian Gao. Some people refer to it as the Jamaican pepper. It comes from the West Indian tree.
Although this is commonly used in the West as well, the seeds are used in various meals of China. You may use it to flavour the chutney, sausage and other Asian and Latin American meals.
The cumin seeds are preferred in Chinese cuisine because when they are freshly toasted, they produce a great aroma. When preparing the lamb, you can have it as an addition to the lamb skewers.
24. Chinese licorice roots
Although this is commonly used when making the Chinese herbal medicine, they are preferred options for spice when making the broths and braised meals. It further has a great aroma which makes it ideal for use in various soups and sauces.
25. The hot mustard
The hot mustard has a sharp hot radish-like taste. It’s best used when you need to make it a condiment. You make it by mixing dry mustard powder with water. You will have a distinctive taste in your condiments.
The last on my list is the cilantro. This is a staple spice in the Southern China region. It happens to be the coriander plant leaf. Its responsible for the pungent and fragrant taste. It flavours your food and you may also use it as garnish. It’s the Chinese parsley.