Dry Chinese Spices is definitely a category of its own, and we tried to make just a small dent in the vast amount of spices and herbs used in Chinese cuisine by listing some of the ones we use most often in our kitchen. But if you don’t see what you’re looking for, just give us a shout via email or comment and we’ll do our best to help!
If you’re looking for a different ingredient, be sure to check our Chinese ingredients glossary main page where you can easily locate what you’re looking for.
Salt – yán (盐)
What can we say about this? Salt is the foundation of all cooking. Oftentimes, Chinese food is blamed for having too high a salt content, but we’ve found that this is really only the case in restaurants as opposed to home cooking. Restaurants want to make their food tasty, so you can’t really blame them. We like to use coarse sea salt or Kosher salt, but whatever you use, just remember that saltiness levels can vary greatly among kinds, so it’s essential to taste often while cooking!
By now you’re probably scratching your heads as to why we’re talking about an ingredient as basic as salt, but some of the tastiest dishes use salt as a star ingredient! There’s Salt and Pepper Squid, Salt and Pepper Shrimp, Cantonese Salt and Pepper Pork Chops, and our favorite Three-Ingredient Grilled Chicken Wings!
Depending upon the type and region of the dish you’re cooking, you may use soy sauce or other sauces as your primary source of saltiness. For example, Shanghai dishes use soy sauce liberally, so less salt is used in those recipes than in Sichuan and Northern Chinese cooking, where it’s the other way around (more salt, less soy sauce). The beauty of cooking at home is that you have the option to balance the amount of salt used and you can enhance your dishes in other ways.
Sugar – táng (糖)
We like to use natural organic sugar for our cooking, although we also use white sugar for some baking applications. As is the case in all cuisines, sugar balances salty and sour flavors in Chinese cooking, and is especially important for many well-known and beloved stir-fry dishes. These days, preferences run the gamut from plain granulated white sugar to raw sugar to stevia…the list goes on. So whatever you use, taste often to avoid cooking catastrophes! Obviously, regular sugar is available everywhere, so here’s a ceremonial picture of our favorite kind:
Rock Sugar (冰糖)
In many of our recipes, we simplify the ingredients list to use granulated or brown sugar when the actual recipe should use rock sugar. We still use rock sugar or bīng táng (冰糖) which is similar to jaggery, in our kitchen when we have it, but, truthfully, using granulated white or brown sugar instead only makes a minimal difference, so convenience wins out if you don’t have rock sugar in the pantry!
But rock sugar is a key ingredient in many dishes, including Judy’s Shanghai Braised Pork Belly, Grandma’s Red Cooked Pork, Shanghai Sweet and Sour Ribs, and Chinese Braised Oxtails. In short–some of our tastiest recipes!!! So if you have some rock sugar around, are feeling the pressure of tradition, or if you’re just looking for the perfect sheen on your pork belly dish, give it a try!
Caster Sugar (砂糖)
Caster sugar or shā táng (砂糖) has a consistency that falls somewhere between granulated and powdered sugar. It’s difficult to find, but if you have a food processor or a good blender, you can actually make it yourself. Just place granulated sugar in the processor or blender and whizz it until it gets to a superfine but not powdered state. You’ll need it to make Coconut Cocktail buns and Pineapple Buns!
MonoSodium Glutamate -MSG (味精)
MSG or wèi jīng (味精) is a reproduction of naturally occurring glutamates (sometimes referred to as the 5th taste, umami). It intensifies flavor and is used in many processed and restaurant foods. You can read more about the details in the Wikipedia article on MSG (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate).
Of course, we don’t have to tell you that MSG is much-maligned in the food world, even though it is technically naturally occurring. Even so, there are other ways aside from MSG to make your food delicious, which is the reason why we don’t use it in any of our recipes here at The Woks of Life. When we eat out at Chinese restaurants, however, we can often tell when it is used, especially in stir-fried green vegetables. We’re not gonna lie–there is definitely an improvement in taste! The older generations in our family used to joke around about using it in the kitchen. They used to say, “maybe you have to add some si-fu (master) to make it better!” implying that a dash of MSG is like adding a touch from the master chef! Funny eh?
If you don’t have any adverse reactions to MSG, you may want to try it after reading more about it. Either way, if you eat processed foods, or use any prepared spice mixes, chances are that you are already consuming it in small quantities. You can actually buy it on Amazon, and we found this “best selling” brand; so if you want to experiment, you can buy it. But like all of the products listed on our ingredients pages, this is by no means an endorsement from us!
White Pepper (白胡椒)
White pepper or bái hú jiāo (白胡椒) is used in Chinese cooking like black pepper is used, well… for all other cooking! We use fresh ground white and black whole peppercorns for all of our cooking unless we are making larger amounts of dry rub and marinades. The white peppercorn has a distinctly different taste than the black peppercorn and is always the preferred choice for Chinese cooking unless otherwise specified. We’re actually not sure why this is the case, but some things just are the way they are; this is one of those things.
A little-known fact is that white and black pepper both come from the same plant but are processed differently to yield different flavors. White pepper has a much hotter taste that follows right down to the back of your throat, giving a prominent flavor to soups. White peppercorns are a little harder to find, but any well stocked Asian grocery store will have it or you can buy on Amazon in a pinch!
We keep a small bottle of ground white pepper in the pantry for convenience but almost always use whole white peppercorns in a grinder.
Sichuan Peppercorn (花椒 )
Known for the slight numbing sensation it leaves on the tongue, the Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorn or huā jiāo (花椒 ) gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor. Funnily enough, it’s actually not a peppercorn at all, but a berry from the prickly ash tree. It’s used both in whole and ground form and is one of the ingredients in 5 spice powder.
The Sichuan peppercorns pictured below are the red or “regular” variety that we use in most of our recipes. Green peppercorns are also available but we tend to avoid them because they seem to be even more numbing than the red ones! Kaitlin uses both in her popular Ma Po Tofu recipe. Notice that these peppercorns don’t have any seeds in them–it’s just the husk of the berry–and they have a vibrant color which indicate they are of higher quality. Avoid ones that are dark brown or black and have a lot of seeds and stems because they tend to be gritty, dirty, and are generally unpleasant to eat.
We use Sichuan peppercorns whole much of the time, but you can also grind them with a mortar and pestle or with a spice grinder. When using them, be sure to pick out any stray stems and shake off any dust in a strainer before using them. You can also buy ground Sichuan peppercorns as well, but we recommend using a mortar and pestle to grind your own as needed to ensure a strong flavor.
When you open a bag of peppercorns for the first time, you should get a strong flowery and peppery aroma from these peppercorns. The second test of freshness is biting into one of the peppercorns; you should definitely taste the spice and feel the numbness! Did you know that the “ma” in Ma Po Tofu means “numb” in Chinese?
If you like Sichuan spicy food, this is a must for your pantry! Some of our favorites of Judy’s is the Sichuan Stir-Fried Potatoes and Sichuan Three Pepper Chicken. Go check them out and you’ll be convinced you need to get a bag of these peppercorns.
Dried Red Chili Pepper
Dried Red Chili peppers or gān hóng là jiāo (干红辣椒) come in a vast number of varieties–too many for us to keep up with. In general, the smaller the chili, the hotter they are. A lot of Chinese dishes call for either long hot green peppers or small red chilis, both of which can be found in any grocery store. Hunan and Sichuan cuisine also make use of the dried red chili pepper, which can be found in most Asian groceries.
Not all dried chili peppers are created equal. We have seen those sold in the Sichuan region of China that have a deep red color and others that have a more washed out red color. Color is important for making red chili oil and Sichuan dishes but I think it is second to flavor. I suggest buying smaller packets to experiment with brands but to also ensure that they stay fresh in your pantry.
We use dried red chili peppers in many of our recipes both whole and ground up. Dried chili peppers, when toasted properly, are pleasantly fragrant and addictively tasty! Dumplings and pan-fried buns must be eaten with a homemade sauce made of raw garlic, toasted chilis, soy sauce, and a dash of vinegar. Check out our Chongqing Chicken Recipe, which uses ample amounts of dried red chili peppers. Just remember that these chilis are just for flavor and aroma, NOT for eating whole (unless you want a whole world of hurt). But fear not, a few dried red peppers here and there don’t turn anything insanely spicy. Small quantities simply round out flavors and add complexity. Sometimes we add just a few for the toasted pepper flavor with a hint of heat, like in our Orange Chicken; sometimes we add more for a little extra spice, like we did for Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce.
These Thai chili peppers look more like the variety we saw in Chengdu that have a deeper red color in case you don’t have access to these ingredients at an Asian grocery store. Thailand definitely knows their chilis!
Chili Powder from Sichuan Province
This chili powder or Làjiāo fēn (辣椒芬) is crushed but not fully pulverized and is perfect for making chili oil. There is some powder and some crushed pieces, the perfect texture for chili oil and seasoning meats. The powder produces a rich red color and the coarser flakes add a great look and texture. You can make our Homemade Chili Oil, one of the key additions to our popular Lanzhou Beef Noodle soup.
For some applications and sometimes for convenience, we use a good quality crushed red pepper which works if you can’t locate the right dried peppers. We get the huge container at Costco, because, obviously, we are people who enjoy spice. Just remember that these Italian-style crushed red pepper flakes should only be used if you can’t find the brands from the Sichuan region of China. The differences in flavor and color make a huge difference in the quality and flavor of chili oil! Try your best to locate the brand or similar product pictured above in your local Asian store if you’re looking to achieve the most authentic taste and look.
Korean Chili Powder
We also use Cayenne red pepper powder and sometimes use a Korean red chili powder for cooking and marinades. Korean red chili powder and flakes does have a different flavor, however–we find that it’s slightly sweeter. If you’re a spicy food lover, you can buy a whole pound of it on amazon and use it for all of your cooking.
Star Anise or bājiǎo (八角)
Star anise plays a key role in slow-cooked dishes and is also one of the spices in 5 spice powder. Look for whole pieces that aren’t broken up and store them it in a sealed container in your spice cabinet to keep them fresh.
There are a variety of brands and suppliers that you can shop and compare on Amazon.
Five Spice Powder (五香粉)
This famous 5 spice mixture or wǔxiāng fěn (五香粉) is usually made from Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon but the spice can vary depending upon the brand. The blend combines the five primary flavors of Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It is widely used in Chinese cooking and is occasionally set out on the dinner table mixed with salt and pepper for adding flavor to certain chicken dishes.
It’s usually used for marinades and dry rubs for meats. Sometimes we add an optional pinch for a touch of spice in dishes like fried rice and lo mein. Our favorite applications are five spice fried chicken, roast chicken, Chinese ribs, roast pork, roast duck, and this insanely amazing Roasted Chicken with Sticky Rice dish that will blow your mind. Try a more basic yet tasty weeknight dinner dish like Easy Five-Spice Baked Chicken or just some no-nonsense Five Spice Fried Chicken.
This should be pretty easy to find at grocery stores, but in case you need an online option, this all natural Chinese five spice powder is highly rated on Amazon:
Dried Tangerine and Mandarin Orange Peels
Dried tangerine and citrus peels, commonly referred to as guǒpí (果皮) or “fruit skin” in Chinese, are a widely used spice in Chinese cooking. It is used in dishes like Tangerine beef and Orange chicken but also in soups, stews and braised dishes like Braised Duck. Look at the picture below and you will see store-bought dried orange peels in the upper left hand corner which over time have turned into a darker color. Right next to it is fresh tangerine peel which has been dried for a couple of weeks that still retains its vibrant color. At the bottom of the picture you can see how we scraped away the pith to dry or to use immediately for Tangerine beef. You can try drying your own or buying it from your local Chinese grocery store.
Bay Leaves (香叶)
Bay leaves or Yuèguì yè (月桂叶) are use widely in all types of cooking. Chinese stews and braising liquids call for this aromatic bay leaf which is more commonly known as xiāng yè (香叶).
Whole Allspice Berries
Allspice is sometimes confused with a mixture of spices but in fact is a dried aromatic fruit of the West Indian tree. Sometimes called Jamaican pepper, it is sometimes used in Chinese cooking and incorporated in some traditional dishes like Chinese New Year Nian Gao.
Curry Powder (咖喱粉)
Curry powder or gālí fěn (咖喱粉) is a spicy powder made by grinding and blending various herbs and spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, fenugreek, red peppers, and nutmeg. There are a lot of different curry powders available but we do like a good Madras curry powder for our Singapore Mei Fun Noodles and Coconut Curry chicken. We also frequently use canned curry pastes, which have a more concentrated flavor in smaller quantities.
Madras curry powder has a fragrant taste and rich yellow color great for any dish, and we use this brand from the local Asian grocery. We have not found where you can buy just one on Amazon but you can search from the link below!
Turmeric Powder (黄姜粉)
Turmeric powder or huáng jiāng fěn (黄姜粉) is an essential ingredient in all curry powders and provides most of the yellow golden color and also is a healthy herb. Adding extra turmeric powder enhances the color of a good curry dish and can also be used in place of food coloring when a nice yellow color is desired.
Cumin or zī rán (孜然)
Cumin is an aromatic seed used to flavor sausages, chutneys, and a variety of Indian, Asian, and Latin American dishes. We cook quite a few Latin American dishes so cumin powder is always in our pantry. We also keep whole cumin seeds since there are many Chinese dishes that call for it and we also like using the mortar and pestle and grinding freshly toasted cumin seed into a fragrant powder rather than using the pre-ground variety.
Generally, you can find whole seeds at the local Indian or Asian grocery store but for convenience, you can just order it and have it delivered to your door!
Coriander Seed (芫荽子)
Fresh coriander or cilantro is used in many Chinese dishes but coriander seeds or yán suī zi (芫荽子) are rarely used. Instead, we have them listed here for our pantry when cooking international dishes like Indian lentils.
Fennel Seed (茴香籽)
You are probably most familiar with the taste of fennel seeds in Italian sausages and also in Indian cuisines but they are also used in Chinese cooking. Fennel seed or huí xiāng zǐ (茴香籽) is one of the spices used to make 5 spice powder! We use whole fennel seed in Lanzhou Beef Noodle soup.
Chinese Cinnamon or guì pí (桂皮)
Also called cassia cinnamon, this is unlike regular cinnamon in color as well as thickness. The more common name in Chinese is guì pí (桂皮) but it is also known as ròu guì (肉桂). These Chinese translations of these different varieties of spices like cinnamon can be really confusing!
Chinese cassia cinnamon is thicker, grayer, and more closely resembles tree bark. This is also one of the main ingredients in five-spice powder.
In general, Chinese cinnamon sticks, gui pi, are less fragrant than regular cinnamon. It’s mostly used for braised dishes, stews, and marinades in Chinese cooking. But you can use a smaller amount of the higher quality and more fragrant cinnamon sticks, rather than using the Chinese variety if you can’t track any down. Remember, however, to use a bit less, or the cinnamon flavor will come through too strong!
Cloves or dīng xiāng (丁香)
Cloves have very strong, pungent, and sweet aroma and is one of the five spices that make up five spice powder. It can be used whole or ground up and is widely used both Asian and Western cooking. We like to buy whole cloves and grind them as needed or just let whole cloves infuse dishes like Homemade Chili Oil. They also add great flavor to curry dishes like Beef Rendang.
Black Cardamom (黑豆蔻)
Cardamom or hēi dòukòu (黑豆蔻) is an ingredient that you probably think of when cooking Indian dishes, but they also have their place in Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking. Green cardamom is seldom used, but black cardamom adds an extra dimension of flavor to stews and noodle soups like Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup and Pho Vietnamese Noodle Soup.
Dried Sand Ginger (沙薑)
Dried Sand Ginger is different from your regular variety of Chinese ginger and is part of the galangal family and sometimes referred to as aromatic ginger. A side-by-side comparison of sand ginger powder or shā jiāng fěn (沙薑粉) with ginger powder, jiāng fěn (薑粉) will find that they taste and smell quite different as they are different varieties of ginger. We buy dried sand ginger from our local Chinese market but if you look closely at the packaging, the English words say dried ginger slices but in the Chinese characters, it is actually sand ginger slice 沙薑片. Now that’s confusing, which is why we provided the Chinese characters for each varieties in the powder and the slice form. Use these Chinese characters when shopping for this ingredient!
Ginger Powder (姜粉)
Organic ginger powder of jiāng fěn (姜粉) is a must have item in your pantry for baking and Chinese cooking.
Galangal Root Powder (Gāoliáng jiāng)
Galangal or Gāoliáng jiāng (高良姜) is used mostly for Southeast Asian cooking and sometimes referred to as Thai ginger. It is also known in Chinese cooking as sand ginger or shā jiāng 沙薑. Our experience is a bit limited, but we hope to introduce more recipes using this very fragrant spice like our Easy Asian Dry Rub Chicken. It’s also sold fresh–you can see the picture on our Chinese Aromatics and Peppers Ingredients page.
Sesame Seeds (white and black)
Sesame seeds or zhī ma (芝麻) are an essential pantry item for Chinese cooking. Sometimes used for sweet treats and sometimes for accent or garnish, they add a great nutty flavor and crunch. We use sesame seeds liberally in our kitchen. They’re the star of dishes like Sweet Sesame Crisps, Chinese Sesame Peanut Brittle, or Cold Sesame Noodles. There are various colors of sesame seeds available and both white and black seeds are used in Chinese cooking.
It’s best to store sesame seeds in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator after opening, but if kept in a dry and cool area, it also keeps well in the pantry. Sesame seeds are quite heat tolerant, so, lucky for us, it’s actually not easy to burn sesame seeds. So sprinkle away for a crunchy garnish!
Toasted and non-toasted sesame seeds are readily available in Asian markets. We like using the toasted seeds for a quick and easy garnish sprinkled over dishes but we also have raw seeds on hand for baking and cooking. You can find white and black sesame seeds as well. If you’re having trouble finding sesame seeds, we found one brand here that bundles both white and black, but, as always, check out what you can find near you! You can also buy these in larger 1 pound bags if you decide to make Tang Yuan (Sweet Rice Balls with Black Sesame Filling).