14 Essential Chinese Spices

Chinese people use a lot of spices in Chinese cooking.  Just as Westerners use different kinds of herbs, Chinese and Taiwanese people use lots of spices. That’s not to say we don’t use herbs, in our cuisine we still use things like garlic but generally we use spices instead.

This article will introduce you to the 14 different kinds of essential Chinese spices in Chinese cooking. Sometimes you might not see Chinese people use these spices on their own but some of the spices from this list are key ingredients in five-spice powder or Chinese spice pouches.

Illustrated by Liv Wan. All right reserved.

chinese spices poster
amomum tsaoko illustration
  1. Amomum Tsaoko 草果

Amomum Tsaoko is also known as “cao guo” and it grows at high altitudes and in humid and warm areas in Yunnan, China.

Cao Guo tastes spicy, has a strong smell and a strong taste. Because it’s strong in fragrance Chinese people like to use this spice to cook fish, meat and poultry. It can get rid of the odor of the meat, fish and poultry and give it an amazing smell and taste.

Chinese people usually crush this spice before using it in cooking but you can also keep it whole.

Example dishes: Red-cooked beef, Cao guo chicken soup, Sichuan hot pot, red-cooked lamb

bay leaf illustration
  1. Bay Leaf 月桂葉/香葉

Bay leaf is a spice that’s very popular in both Chinese and western cuisine. Chinese people use bay leaf to cook meat because bay leaf can get rid of the odour of the meat. So it’s really popular in Chinese meat cuisine.

Some people also like use bay leaf in Chinese pickled vegetables.

Example Dishes: Any kind of slow cooked meat in Chinese cuisine and pickled vegetables.

cardamon illustration
  1. Cardamom 小荳蔻

When many people think about cardamom they often think about it’s usage in Indian cuisine but it’s also very popular in Chinese and South East Asian cooking. Cardamom is most commonly used in red-cooked beef or any kind of stew. I personally like to use cardamom when I cook “boiled pork with garlic sauce”. I will add 1-2 cardamom and I think it goes perfectly with the pork.

Example Dishes: Beef noodles, beef stew, red-cooked beef, boiled pork with garlic sauce

chenpi illustration
  1. Chenpi 陳皮

Chenpi is one of my favourite spices to use in Chinese cooking. Chenpi is sun-dried tangerine (mandarin) peel. Sometimes people or some of the Chinese supermarkets call this spice “dried orange peel” but it actually is tangerine peel.

Chinese people have used citrus peels in their cuisine since at least the Song Dynasty. I personally use chenpi in red-cooked pork, steamed beef meatballs, marinade roast duck and also in rub for roast duck. I sometimes add chenpi into the syrup and brush it on a duck or chicken before roasting them. Chenpi gives the dish a citrus flavour and kick which makes food taste more interesting and refreshing.

Example dishes: Roast duck, roast chicken, red-cooked pork, steamed beef meatballs

Cinnamon Stick illustration
  1. Cinnamon 肉桂/ 桂皮

Cinnamon is one of the main ingredients of five-spice powder and it’s a spice I use very often in Chinese cooking. Cinnamon is mainly used for braised dishes and stews and I often use cinnamon in red-cooked pork. I also usually use a cinnamon stick rather than ground cinnamon as I’ve found the latter’s quality and taste isn’t as good as a cinnamon stick.

Example dishes: Five-spice powder, red-cooked pork, braised dishes and stew

cloves illustration
  1. Cloves 丁香

Cloves are a very strong and pungent spice. It’s one of the main ingredients of five-spice powder. This spice can be used whole or ground up. It’s a very popular spice in both Western and Chinese cooking.

Example dishes: Five-spice powder, braised or stewed dishes.

Cumin illustration
  1. Cumin 孜然

Cumin is one of my favourite spices in Chinese cooking. I had the great pleasure of visiting Xi’an a couple times and fell in love with their cuisine which uses a lot of cumin. One dish, Xi’an lamb kebab, was simply amazing and since then I’ve fallen in love with this spice.

Cumin is usually used for marinade meat and poultry. You can use it as a rub for bbq lamb, beef and other kinds of meat. You can also use it as a seasoning in stir-fried dishes.

Example dishes: Xian lamb kebab, Cumin stir-fry pork mince, cumin roast chicken

dried chilli illustration
  1. Dried Chilli 乾辣椒/海淑

Dried chili is a popular spice in Sichuan, Guizhou and Hunan cuisine. Dried chili is one of the spice I always have in my pantry because I cook a lot of Sichuan cuisine at home. So Sichuan pepper and dried chili are two spices I can’t live without.

I will cut a dried chili in half before cooking and I will heat up a wok with some oil to stir-fry the dried chili first to allow the fragrance to come out. Then I will add other ingredients to the stir-fry and you end up with a really delicious spicy stir-fry.

Example dishes: Kung Pao Chicken and Sichuan green beans with ground pork

Fennel seed illustration
  1. Fennel Seeds 小茴香

Fennel seeds are one of the main ingredients of five-spice powder. Fennel seeds are also used in braised dishes and stew and is usually used to cook meat and poultry in Chinee cooking.

Example dishes: Five-spice powder, potato and beef stew, five spice peanut

liquorice root illustration
  1. Liquorice Root 甘草

Liqourice root has a mellow sweetness and herby aroma. You can use this spice to season desserts, make drinks and marinade duck or red-cooked pork.

Liqurorice root is also very popular in Chinese medicine.

Example dishes: Syrup for brushing Chinese roast duck, red-cooked pork or other slow cook meat dishes

nutmeg illustration
  1. Nutmeg 肉荳蔻

In some parts of China, nutmeg is a main ingredient of five-spice powder. This spice is also one of the seasonings for Cantonese roast pork.

But please don’t consume too much nutmeg as this could cause some serious medical problems and potentially even kill you.

Example dishes: Cantonese roast pork

sand ginger illustration
  1. Sand Ginger 沙薑

Sand ginger has a spicy, strong flavour and smell. This is a popular spice in South East china and you can use sand ginger to cook chicken, pork and seafood.

Example dishes: Sand ginger chicken, sand ginger crab

sichuan pepper illustration
  1. Sichuan Pepper 花椒

Sichuan pepper is well known for it’s numbing taste. It’s a very popular spice in Sichuan cuisine and it gave Sichuan cuisine a distinctive identity in Chinese cuisine.  Sichuan pepper is a key seasoning spice for Ma Po tofu. Ma in Chinese means “numb”.

You can make Sichuan pepper oil and use it as condiment.  Sichuan pepper is also one of the main ingredients of five-spice powder.

Example dishes: Kung pao chicken, five-spice powder, ma po tofu

Star Anise illustration
  1. Star Anise 八角/ 大料

Star anise plays a very important role in Chinese cooking. It’s also one of the main ingredients of five-spice powder. You can use this spice in braised dishes and stews.

Example dishes: Beef noodle, red-cooked beef, red-cooked pork, tea eggs, Taiwanese stewed eggs