Cook Better Chinese Food With This Spice + Herb Guide

Master these spices and herbs, and you can use it for other cuisines, too!

IMAGE Majoy Siason

Whether or not you cook Chinese food regularly, knowing about these Chinese spices and herbs will be a big help to your kitchen life. Filipino cooking and Chinese cooking, after all, are very much entwined because of our long history together. You'll also find that there are a lot of similar herbs and spices between the two cuisines.

For this list, we focus on the Chinese herbs and spices you can readily find at the groceries or wet markets here in the Philippines.

Fresh Chinese Herbs and Spices

These herbs and spices are so common in the Philippines it might not even be right to call them "Chinese" herbs. They're simply herbs and spices that the Chinese also use abundantly. Most Chinese recipes would use all these to make their base sauté for stir-fries. 

Herbs, in case you're wondering, are the edible green leafy plants used to flavor food while the seeds, stems or roots, and the bark of the plant are considered spices.    

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Photo by Riell Santos

1 Ginger 

This spicy, fragrant, and fresh spice is unlike any other. It's usually sliced thin or minced finely for plenty of Chinese dishes. However, you can also find it in powder form. It's an essential ingredient in Hainanese chicken and a lot of Chinese stir-fries.

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2 Garlic

This common herb is used in tons of Chinese dishes, especially stir-fries. You can also buy minced garlic in jars to make your life easier.

3 Green onions or scallions

This herb is often used as a garnish for a reason. When heated for too long, they can get slimy for the same reason as okra does, too. It has a sweet, herby, slightly spicy, onion flavor that adds freshness to a dish. 

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Are green onions and scallions different? Yes, but you can use them interchangeably. What differentiates one from the other is that green onions are younger than scallions so its stalks are straight, while scallions have matured enough to develop a bulb.

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Photo by Majoy Siason

4 Onion leeks

Though similar looking to green onions, they are different altogether. Not only are they larger, but they also have a milder and sweeter flavor. Be careful not to rub your eyes after chopping them, though! These can irritate the eyes almost just as much as cutting an onion.

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Hot and sour soup is a popular Chinese restaurant soup you can easily make at home.
Photo by Majoy Siason

5 Coriander leaves or wansoy

This is a fresh, fragrant herb that also finds itself in Filipino, Thai, and even Mexican cooking. It's strong, unique taste is not for everyone. Sometimes, using it as a garnish is quite enough for this pungent herb. 

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Dried Chinese Spices

Even some dried spices that the Chinese commonly use are available in our local groceries and wet market.

Photo by Majoy Siason

6 Five-spice powder

This quintessential Chinese spice mix is used as a dry rub, added to stews, and roasts. It's made of finely ground mix of these spices: Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel seeds. Together, it's a sweet, sour, bitter, and earthy mix that easily adds depth to any recipe. A little of this spice goes a long way. Authentic Chinese kikiam also features this spice prominently. 

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Oct 10, 2018

Photo by Bianca Laxamana

7 Star anise

This spice has a flavor that's close to licorice. If you haven't had licorice, it has a sweet flavor similiar to cola. It is those flavor notes that make it perfect for the sweet, meaty dish asado. You can easily find these star-shaped pods at the spice section or even in small plastic pouches at the wet market. 

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8 Fennel seeds 

This spice smells and tastes similar to star anise but is milder. You can easily fish out star anise once you're eating a dish with the spice or even before because of how big the pods are but fennel seeds are small enough to be consumed whole. For a better mouth-feel and even better flavor, you can coarsely grind this spice. They're often incorporated into bread recipes but it's also used in Chinese curry.

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9 Cloves

Getting whole cloves might be a bit difficult in the Philippines. It will be easier to find them in powdered form. It offers a pungent, bitter flavor with a fragrant, woodsy, and sweet scent. 

This steamed bun is filled with a delicious pork asado filling.
Photo by Patrick Martires

10 Bay leaves 

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A staple in adobo, we all know about bay leaves. Did you know, though, why it's so popular in a lot of cuisines? That's because the bay leaf can remove unpleasant odors found in meat. In Chinese cooking, it's often crushed when used.

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Jan 30, 2019

11 Sichuan peppercorns

Though "peppery", it offers a different flavor and different level of heat altogether. Sichuan peppercorn is much stronger, has lemony overtones, and adds a tingly numbness to your mouth. Traditionally, Sichuan peppercorn is used strongly in Sichuan cooking, especially mapo tofu.

Photo by Bianca Laxamana
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Yes, you can find this special pepper locally! We found Sichuan peppercorn at SM Megamall's supermarkets. To use it as you would pepper, lightly toast it with some salt and grind it. 

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12 Cassia, Chinese cinnamon 

Although delicate Ceylon cinnamon is uncommon in the Philippines, you can easily find its substitute, the Cassia cinnamon. It's usually found as ground cinnamon or cinnamon bark. It adds an earthy sweetness to recipes and is typically found in braised dishes and stews. 

Photo by Patrick Martires

13 White pepper

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In traditional Chinese cooking, white pepper is preferred to black pepper. Although spicier than black pepper, white pepper's flavor is more subdued than black pepper and the heat hits you differently. 

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Stir fries like this ginger sesame beef recipe is fast and easy to make.
Photo by Majoy Siason

14 Sesame seeds

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From sweets to viands, sesame seeds may be easily incorporated into dishes. Choose white sesame seeds for a lighter, nutty flavor while black sesame seeds offer a stronger, more peppery, nutty, and earthy flavor. When fried, sesame seeds puff and become deliciously crunchy. 

If using as a garnish, sesame seeds become even more delicious when toasted. In a large wok on medium heat, simply keep moving the sesame seeds until they're lightly browned. If toasting black sesame seeds, add a small number of white sesame seeds as a gauge for doneness.

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Are you ready to get cooking better Chinese food? We are! We're sure this Chinese spice and herb guide would help you not just navigate Chinese recipes, but also the freedom to experiment with the flavors and get every dish perfectly to taste.

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