The goal of Chinese cooking is to give food balanced flavors that come from a variety of spices and herbs. Chinese spices usually have applications in Traditional Chinese Medicine so that they are intended to provide both flavor and health benefits when you use them in dishes. Some of the most popular spices and seasonings in Chinese cooking are:
Five-spice powder could be considered the Chinese version of India’s garam masala. It is a grouping of pungent spices that give a distinctive sweet and spicy flavor profile to dishes. The spices that you might see in a five-spice powder include star anise, fennel, and Szechuan (or Sichuan) peppercorns. Five-spice powder is versatile and works as a seasoning in the breading for fried dishes and sauces for braised ones. The blend is extremely pungent when fresh. Be careful when using it to avoid over-flavoring your food.
Aside from their use in five-spice powder, Szechuan peppercorns are an essential ingredient in Chinese cooking. They play an especially important role in dishes from Szechuan Province in China.
Szechuan peppercorns are known for the unique sensation they provide. The sensation is not the heat like that you would get from chile peppers or black peppercorns. It is closer to a numbing sensation. Use it alongside chile peppers to give dishes an extra dose of spiciness. It is the key spice in the popular Chinese comfort food known as ma po tofu. The ma part of the name translates to numb.
Arguably the spice with the most striking appearance, star anise has a flavor profile similar to that of anise. You can use it whole or grind it to a powder. It dominates the flavor profile of most five-spice powder blends, so if you can use that instead if you can’t find star anise in your local grocery store.
Ginger is possibly the most ubiquitous spice in Chinese cooking. It is commonly paired with garlic and they are the first ingredients that go into the wok in many stir-fried dishes. Fresh ginger has a spicy, sweet flavor profile. It is used in soups and other dishes along with stir-fries and may be used in its fresh form or pickled. Traditional Chinese medicine considers ginger to be a very valuable ingredient.
Often used in stir-fries along with ginger, garlic is highly aromatic and savory. It shows up in a large number of savory Chinese dishes. Its sulfurous umami flavor is versatile and pairs well with virtually every savory ingredient in Chinese cooking.
Extracted from sesame seeds, sesame oil has a nutty flavor and a deep brown color similar to the color of honey. Its flavor is extremely concentrated; you only need a few drops of sesame oil to infuse a dish with its strong flavor. Keep in mind that sesame oil burns at a relatively low temperature, so it is not an appropriate oil for stir-frying.
Shaoxing plays two roles in Chinese cooking: it gives dishes its delicate flavor and it helps to remove some of the gamey notes in meat. French cooking uses wine for similar reasons.
Chinese people enjoy spicy foods like many other people around the world. The spice can come from a variety of ingredients including black pepper and Szechuan peppercorns but often comes from the chili pepper. Dried red chiles are commonly used to add heat to stir-fries, to make chile oil and as a condiment that you sprinkle on food at the table.