The Top 10 Most Common Herbs and Spices Used to Flavor Chinese Food

ginger, garlic and green onionGinger, garlic, and green onions are among the 5 most commonly used herbs.

A great part of the fun of travel in China is trying all the different kinds of authentic Chinese food. Chinese love to greatly vary the flavors of their food by using herbs and spices.

Some of the herbs and spices on this list of 10 will be familiar to you, and others will be novel and even strange. You'll learn what a spice or herb is like, its health effects, any health warning, and what Chinese use it for.

Health Benefits of Chinese Herbs/Spices

The Chinese philosophy about food and health is that food can actually be made into a beneficial medicine for what they call food therapy, and they heavily rely on spices and herbs to prepare the kinds of meals they need to make themselves healthy and fit.

Unlike the bland, samey fare you'd find in most Chinese restaurants abroad, the locally-made food brims and tingles with herbs and spices for varied exotic flavors.

To help achieve healthy flavors and produce a harmony of the flavors, Chinese cooks rely on herbs and spices to achieve a balance that promotes health, treats diseases, and aids recovery from injury.

1. Ginger (姜 jiāng)

Ginger root

Ginger is the most common Chinese herb for seasoning. It is usually used along with garlic in stir-fried dishes, soups, and sauces.

In Chinese medicinal cuisine (食疗 shíliáo /shrr-lyaoww/ 'food therapy') it is considered a hot, high-Yang, herb. It is an herb that is more preferred by men who need more Yang than women do generally.

A favorite food for cold winter days when Yin is high and Yang is low is chicken soup with a lot of ginger. The soup helps to strengthen and warm the body.

  • Pronunciation: /jyang/
  • Usage: Wash them with water and if you wish, peel the skin before use. It can be used for cooking or eaten raw.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: Ginger helps balance the qi and the body fluids — so it helps people to stay healthy and recover from stress. It is also used to help neutralize any harmful effects of other ingredients in the food or medical concoctions, so it is used heavily in Chinese medicine.

It strengthens the immune system, helps people heal faster, and helps heal or prevent respiratory or circulation problems. It helps prevent cancer and has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Warnings/side effects: None. It is thought to be a herb with little or no harmful health effects. You can eat it as often as you want. It is thought that men especially might eat it daily for good health.

2. Garlic (大蒜 dàsuàn)

A plate of garlic cloves might be set at your table by your order.

Garlic is often used to season cooking for stir-fries along with ginger. It is used throughout Chinese cooking.

  • Pronunciation: /dah-swann/
  • Usage: In many less expensive restaurants such as Guilin-style or Lanzhou-style noodle shops, bowls of chopped garlic or whole garlic cloves are set out for customers to add to their food.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: Garlic is also a high Yang herb. Like ginger, it can be used to replenish Yang in the body. It is a potent antioxidant, antibiotic, and antiviral herb.

It heals and prevents infections and many viral or bacterial borne illnesses, and it promotes proper blood circulation and heals or prevents circulation problems such as high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Warnings/side effects: None, except studies have shown that it may potentially harm people who take HIV medications.

3. Star Anise (八角 bājiǎo)

Star anise

This is a very commonly used ingredient that is used more frequently than even chili and the others below. However, most Westerners may have never actually seen of one of these little brown 8-pointed star seed pods. It has a pleasant taste like licorice. Chinese from northern to southern China love this taste and think it is a very healthy ingredient to mix in with the commonly used high Yang herbs and spices.

Many Chinese will habitually drop a piece of star anise in whenever they boil basically any soup or vegetable, and it is added to many other dishes as well.

It is also one of the 5 ingredients commonly used in the very popular seasoning concoction called 5-spice powder (五香 wǔxiāng /woo-sshyang/) that is the most commonly added kind of powdered seasoning.

There are several slightly different formulations for this 5-spice seasoning, but star anise finds its way in the most common varieties. Whether you know it or not, if you eat in a Chinese restaurant in China, you'll eat a little star anise.

  • Pronunciation: /bah-jyaoww/
  • Usage: They are easy to find and buy in Chinese supermarkets and markets. Just ask for it. Like Chinese do, when you boil a soup or anything, drop one in for flavoring. For a relaxing licorice flavor in your tea, boil it in your tea water.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: This pleasant tasting herb has a lot of antioxidants for its size. It can strengthen the immune system, prevent fungal infections, support respiratory health, lower the risk of cancer, boost circulation, and aid sleep.

Warnings/side effects: None in Chinese food flavoring amounts. But there is a similar seed pod called Japanese star anise that is poisonous. Make sure you don't ingest that.

4. Cloves (丁香 dīngxiāng)

ClovesCloves
Cloves make their way into Chinese medical formulas such as this.

Cloves are also commonly used in Chinese cooking. Many or most foreign visitors may have never used this spice either, but it is more commonly found in Western kitchens than star anise.

It is one of the standard ingredients in five-spice seasoning that is generally composed of black pepper or peppercorn, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and salt.

  • Pronunciation: /ding-sshyang/
  • Usage: You could apply it to food as part of the five-spice powder to season poultry, braise meat dishes, and make soups for a delicious Chinese flavor.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: Cloves offer some health benefits. Cloves aid in digestion, boost the immune system, control diabetes, fight cancer, and might have anti-mutagenic and anti-microbial properties. It might help heal or fight against oral diseases, and it has aphrodisiac properties. It is an anti-inflammatory.

Warnings/side effects: There seems to be little danger in using the herb in the amounts used in cooking. Be aware though that it prevents blood from clotting. People taking anticoagulant/anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin and warfarin should beware.

5. Chili (辣椒 làjiāo)

ChiliChili

Chili pepper is heavily used. It is often dried to make chili flakes or chili powder (辣椒粉 làjiāofěn /laa-jyaoww-fnn/), chili paste (辣椒酱 làjiāojiàng /laa-jyaoww-jyang/), and chili oil. Chili powder, flakes, and paste are heavily used in Chinese cooking especially in the colder northeast and the area around Sichuan and Guangxi.

Fresh chilis are also heavily used for cooking. They might be chopped up and used to make sauces or to season food. The people in Hunan Province like to use fresh chili peppers in their dishes.

Around Sichuan, they like to mix it with peppercorns for their favorite tangy, bitter-hot flavor. Hunanese prefer to mix it with vinegar instead for a refreshing sour-hot flavor. Chinese often use it along with garlic for sautéing, stir-frying, steaming, and smoking.

  • Pronunciation: /laa-jyaoww/
  • Usage: In many restaurants, you'll find bowls of chili sauce set out for the customers. You could also ask for chile sauce along with your meals. It is more difficult to find chili powder in a Chinese restaurant.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: Chili pepper is another high Yang herb. Like ginger, it can be used to replenish Yang in the body. It is very high in vitamin C. One chili pepper has more vitamin C than an orange. Its helps people to heal faster and helps heal or prevent circulation problems. It opens clogged blood vessels, and it can help prevent strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and promote proper blood circulation and heart health. It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Warnings/side effects: None, but if you suffer from asthma, be careful about eating a lot at one time since the burning sensation might aggravate your lung and nasal passages. But using a little every day will probably help alleviate asthma problems.

6. Cassia, Chinese Cinnamon (肉桂 ròuguì)

Cassia bark and cassia powder. Cassia bark is more commonly sold.

All over China, Cassia, the bark of the Cassia tree, is eaten widely. It tastes much like the kind of cinnamon that used to be most commonly used in the West. It is one of the standard ingredients of five-spice powder, but Chinese are using more and more of it to make desserts, pastries, candy, and drinks, and to flavor meat dishes.

  • Pronunciation: /laa-jyaoww/
  • Usage: Sweet cinnamon-flavored pastries and breads containing cassia were not commonly eaten 20 years ago, but pastries such as cinnamon rolls and cinnamon-flavored breads, such as raisin bread, have grown popular

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: It is high in antioxidants and increases circulation, so it heals and prevents rheumatoid arthritis. It is a mild anti-viral and antibiotic, so it helps people avoid flus and cold and stay healthy. It is a mild antidepressant.

Warnings/side effects: Cassia cinnamon has more side effects than regular Ceylon cinnamon. This is because it is high in coumarin. People with diabetes or low blood sugar might better avoid it since it lowers blood sugar. People with a liver disease or who are taking medications that can harm the liver (hepatotoxic drugs) such as Tylenol should also probably avoid eating it.

7. Green Onions, Scallions (葱 cōng)

Green OnionsGreen Onions

After ginger and garlic, the varieties of green onions, scallions, spring onions and similar herbs are probably the next widely used kind of herb. They are often added in stir-fries such as fried rice. They may also be added to soup, such as the commonly eaten noodle soups like lamian (拉面 'pulled wheat noodles').

  • Pronunciation: /tsong/
  • Usage: In many less expensive restaurants such as Guilin-style restaurants, bowls of chopped green onions are available to add to your noodles. It is usually added to soups and fried rice.

Health benefits: Cong is a high Yang herb. It is good for your eyesight since it contains vitamin A, lutein, and zeaxanthin. These protect your eyes from damage and fights macular degeneration.

Green onions are also good for your bones and strength since it is high in vitamin C for collagen generation and vitamin K for bone growth. Like garlic, it has anti-viral properties and can prevent and heal arthritis.

Warnings/side effects: None.

8. Sesame Seed (Oil) (芝麻油 zhīma(yóu))

Sesame SeedSesame Seed

Sesame seeds and especially sesame oils are a characteristic flavor of Chinese cuisine. The seeds and/or the oil might be added to fried dishes such as fried rice, added to desserts and bread-like goodies, and added with soy sauce to make sauces or dips for cold dishes.

Chinese like to use it to stir fry. You'll probably love the flavor of sesame.

  • Pronunciation: /jrr-maa (-yo)/ (or /maa-yo/ 麻油 or /hsyang-yo/ 香油)
  • Usage: Bottles or bowls of sesame oil are often available for customers in restaurants as a condiment. Sometimes, sesame seeds are an available condiment too.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: Sesame seeds and sesame oils are high in minerals especially copper, zinc, and calcium, so they hope bones to grow, heal and get stronger. It is thought that eating it frequently helps prevent osteoporosis.

When fresh, it is also high in beneficial fatty acids that benefit the cardiovascular system and reduce arteriosclerosis. It helps to reduce inflammation. The tyrosine in it has been thought to benefit the serotonin activity in the brain, giving people needed enzymes and hormones if they are anxious or depressed.

Traditional medical use: It is believed that black (fully ripened) sesame seeds (黑芝麻 hēizhīma) are best for medical use. It is thought to be much more potent for reversing aging, regrowing hair, and helping teeth and bones to heal and grow. It contains more vitamin E than any other food of plant origin, and vitamin E helps cells to grow and multiply.

Warnings/side effects: If you are allergic to nuts such as peanuts or walnuts, it might be best to be careful about sesame seeds or sesame oils. It is known to thin the blood, so take care if you take anticoagulant or blood-thinning medications.

9. Black Pepper (黑胡椒 hēihújiāo)

Black PepperBlack Pepper

Black pepper is common in the West, and it is common in China too, but it is near the bottom of this list of 10. 

Chinese use it more widely than Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 huājiāo /hwaa-jyaoww/), which tastes a little bit like black pepper, but is more bitter and numbs the mouth more. Peppercorn is mainly favored around Sichuan. See more on Sichuan Food.

  • Pronunciation: /hay-hoo-jyaow/ (also  胡椒 or 黑椒  /hoo-jyaow/ or /hay-jyaow/)
  • Usage: Unlike in the West, you will almost never see a shaker with black pepper powder. But if you really like the flavor of black pepper and want extra powder for your meal, you could ask the chefs to add more or bring a small bowl of black pepper powder.

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: You probably didn't know about its beneficial health effects. It is high in Yang, so it helps people with low Yang. It strengthens the immune systems, helps to purify the blood and the body by removing toxins, and helps cure colds, digestion and respiratory disorders.

It helps preserve food too, but what most Westerners probably don't know is that one of its greatest health benefits is that it helps people's bodies and cells absorb nutrients from the food that it is applied to. For example, when black pepper is mixed with turmeric, more curcumin is absorbed.

Warnings/side effects: Generally none when eaten in amounts used in Chinese cooking. Be careful about medical use especially if already taking other medications since it might interfere with their effects.

10. Fennel Seeds (小茴香 xiǎohuíxiāng)

Fennel Seeds Fennel Seeds

The reason fennel makes the top 10 list is that it is usually included in Five-spice seasoning. It actually has a taste like that of star anise. It has a licorice flavor, but it is used differently in Chinese medicine and cooking than star anise that is thought to strengthen Yang. It is thought to promote the Yin in a body, so fennel is a spice that is more preferred by women.

It is commonly eaten in the West since it is a favorite spice used in Italian and Jewish cooking and Italian seasonings. In China, it is more commonly used in southern China, where it grows. It is used to make Chinese curry.

  • Pronunciation: /shaoww-hway-sshyang/
  • Usage: They are easy to find and buy in Chinese supermarkets and markets. Just ask for it. Women like to put it in their congee (rice soup).

Health Benefits and Warnings/Side Effects

Health benefits: It somehow promotes or strengthens Yin, so it is thought that it helps women produce breast milk. It has a small estrogenic effect and relieves menstrual problems. It helps women loose weight.

Warnings/side effects: It lowers the blood sugar level, so people with diabetes or low blood sugar might want to avoid it. Chinese medicine texts strongly warn that pregnant women had better avoid it. If people are allergic to celery, carrots, and similar vegetables, they might be allergic to it. It interacts with estrogen enhancing or decreasing drugs since it acts as an estrogen. It thins the blood, so be careful if you are hemophiliac.

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