You might be familiar with common sauces and aromatics in Chinese cooking, but most people don't know about Chinese spices. Popular dishes such as fried rice, dumplings, or vegetable stir-fries don't always use seasonings other than salt and pepper, but the dishes that do can have an entirely different flavor. 

Chinese spices have uses in traditional Chinese medicine, and their health properties are incorporated into the food they are cooked with. Many of the spices on this list are usually used whole to flavor oil for-stir fries or meat stews like hong shao rou (red braised pork belly). If you're looking to expand your Chinese cooking repertoire outside of typical stir-fries, then read on for the spices that you'll need.

1. Five Spice Powder

Five Spice Powder [73/366]

timsackton on Flickr

Five spice powder is the Chinese equivalent of garam masala. The traditional five spices are cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel, and Sichuan peppercorns, but additional spices are used to customize to regional or personal tastes. While it's easy to find five spice powder at most grocery stores, you can make your own by following this recipe. Try it in this Taiwanese popcorn chicken or a simple tea egg recipe. The next five points will highlight the individual spices found in five spice powder.

2. Sichuan Peppercorns

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Also known as Szechuan peppercorns, these are actually berries from the prickly ash tree, and were the original sources of spiciness in Chinese cuisine before Portuguese traders brought chili peppers in the 16th century. Sichuan peppercorns are renowned for the numbing "ma" sensation, similar to a pins and needle feeling, and provide an extra kick for any spicy dish. Some easy dishes to use this in include Ma Po Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles.

3. Cinnamon 

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Cinnamon is thought of as a sweet spice in Western cuisine, but in many other cuisines cinnamon is used in savory dishes. Chinese cinnamon is also referred to as cassia, and similar varieties can be found in the US. Just make sure you don't substitute Ceylon or Mexican cinnamon, or else the flavor will be different. Cinnamon sticks can be used to flavor braising liquid like in lu rou fan (braised pork rice), one of my favorite dishes.

#SpoonTip: After you finish braising meat or tea eggs, filter the leftover liquid to remove additional spices and store it in your fridge to re-use in future braised recipes or stews. Use it in place of water the next time you use it in a recipe, and with each use the "master broth" will get more flavorful over time.

4. Star Anise


green678 on Flickr

One of the prettiest spices, star anise tastes similar to anise, fennel, or licorice. This spice is used whole in many of the recipes on this list, but you can also grind it up to use as a seasoning for vegetables. Star anise has been growing in popularity as a spice in desserts and cocktails. If you're using it whole, leave it in the dish at the end as a garnish.

5. Cloves

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As a component of pumpkin spice, cloves can be thought of as a sweeter spice but are also frequently used in meat dishes. Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree. Cloves are found in many of the recipes on this list, and you can also try it in Malaysian beef rendang.

6. Fennel

Fennel Seeds

Ted Rabbitts on Flickr

The last component of five spice powder, fennel seeds are known for their licorice flavor and are considered a newer spice in Chinese cuisine. The bulb, stalk, and fronds of the fennel plant are entirely edible as well. Fennel seeds are delicious in meat dishes like Lanzhou beef noodle soup.

7. White Pepper

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White peppercorns are the same as black peppercorns, just with the skin removed. The taste is described as floral and less aromatic than black pepper. In French cooking, white pepper is preferred only for aesthetics in lighter colored dishes, but in Chinese cooking white pepper is more common than black pepper. Try this spice as a substitute for black pepper, in hot and sour soup or in a vegetable stir fry.

8. Dried Chili


tompagenet on Flickr

The counterpart to Sichuan peppercorn's numbing ma, these provide the la, the heat. Together they create the ma la (numbing and spicy) flavor that is treasured in Sichuan cuisine. Use these to add heat to any dish, especially ones with Sichuan peppercorns. If you love spicy food, make your own chili oil which you can then use to drench everything from dumplings to dishes like mouthwatering "saliva" chicken.

9. Black cardamom

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With a smokier flavor and larger size than green cardamom, black cardamom gives dishes more depth in flavor. The variety of black cardamom in Chinese cooking is larger and less smoky than the variety used in Indian and Nepalese food, but both are fairly similar. In stores, black cardamom may be labeled with its scientific name Amomum tsao-ko. Use it braised beef or in pho.

10. Bay Leaf

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Bay leaf is an aromatic spice used in many cuisines to flavor soups and sauces. Bay leaves, with their mild menthol scent, round out a dish's flavor. The tough leaves should be removed after cooking. Use it in a hearty one-wok chicken stew.

11. Cumin

Cumin Seeds macro

Swami Stream on Flickr

Cumin is more commonly used in the western regions of China, such as Xinjiang and Xi'an. If you've been to Xi'an Famous Foods in New York, you'll see cumin make an appearance in their cumin spiced lamb dishes. Cumin is frequently used with lamb, and you can try it on these lamb skewers (a common street food in China) or in this Uyghur lamb pilaf.

12. Dried Orange Peel

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Growing up, my mom would save the peel after eating an orange or tangerine and set in on a newspaper on top of our fridge to dry. Once dry, she would use it stews and braises alongside other spices. To make your own, just set aside orange peels to dry. Over time, the dried peels will naturally darken. These add flavor to dishes like orange chicken or this vegan ma la xiang guo (spicy numbing stir-fry).

This list doesn't cover all the spices used in Chinese cuisine, as you'll find recipes with allspice, licorice root, sand ginger, anise seed, and more. If you're looking for Chinese spices, an international grocery store is your best option, and they usually sell spices in bulk for cheap. There are also spice packets (like tea bags) available that make it easy to flavor dishes. 

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Many of these Chinese spices can seem intimidating if you've never cooked with them, but don't be afraid to try them in the recipes above. There's no hard rule for what spices to include in any dish, so you're free to use as little or as many spices in each recipe. Experiment with any of these spices and learn how to make really delicious Chinese food.