Why Chinese Spices Are the Hot, New Flavor

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

Spicy. Complex. Exotic. Step out of your comfort zone and take a chance on some amazing new flavor profiles by getting to know the distinctive tastes of Chinese spices.

Chinese Spices

Although we’re all members of the human family, as anyone who has traveled knows, cultures around the world vary widely. Customs, traditions, and even foodstuffs are unique to particular regions or groups of people. Just as each of us has individual traits that distinguish us from others, so, too, the food of each culture has a flavor profile that defines, in some ways, the people who eat it.

Learn more about the differences between common chiles peppers

In part, a flavor profile is shaped by climate and geography, both of which have an effect on the availability and taste of ingredients. It’s also shaped by history, tradition, and cooking techniques. And of course, what makes a flavor profile distinctive is how its culture chooses to embrace spices.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

China is a huge country with many different kinds of food. In Canton and other southern regions, the food tends to be a bit milder. But when you make your way north, the weather gets colder, and the food gets heavier and more complex. Two areas in particular, Hunan and Sichuan, are ground zero for spicy food.

Some common ingredients and techniques in Asian cooking include:

Szechuan peppercorns
Sichuan Peppercorns

In a handful of Sichuan peppercorns, you may notice some small black seeds mixed in with the reddish husk. If you get a batch of Sichuan peppercorns that have too many black seeds, it’s worth the time and effort to separate the two. The seeds tend to be hard and don’t have as much flavor as the outside of the peppercorn.

Star Anise

In Latin, “star anise” is Illicium verum. Illicium references fragrance and verum refers to truth; thus, the meaning is “true fragrance.” Star anise is one of the components of Chinese five-spice powder and truly has a captivating aroma.

Red Cooking

Further north in China, where the weather is colder, cooks use a style of cooking that we know as braising, but they call it red cooking. What makes this style distinctive is that it uses soy, sherry, ginger, and even star anise to create the braising liquid. This liquid has so much flavor and is considered so valuable that it’s often saved and reused after meat has been braised in it. The liquid is reinforced with new spices, but it carries the flavor of the previous braise with it.

Learn more about India, which produces 50 percent of the spices consumed around the globe

Blending Chinese Spices With Five-Spice Oil

This five-spice oil is a complex condiment.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/3 cups corn or peanut oil
  • 1/2 tbs sesame oil
  • 3 large scallions cut in thick rings (green and white parts)
  • 10 quarter-sized “coins” of ginger smashed
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp brown Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns
  • zest of 1 orange

Cooking Instructions

Five-spice oil is a condiment that is a nice variation on chile oil. Start by heating up neutral vegetable oil, then add the “coins” of ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, red pepper flakes, and scallions. Heat the oil mixture very gently. If it sizzles, it’s almost too hot. The temperature should be around 160°—less than a boil at 212°. Once the oil reaches that temperature, turn the heat down and let the mixture steep for about 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, take the oil off the heat and add sesame oil and orange zest. Allow the oil to cool and steep, overnight if possible. The next day, strain out all the solids. Transfer the oil to a jar or bottle. 

Five-spice oil will keep nicely in the refrigerator or even on the pantry shelf for two or three months,


When you taste the oil, you might be surprised at how mild it is, especially if you’ve ever tasted a raw Sichuan peppercorn, which can numb the inside of your mouth. As the oil sits on your palate, you’ll notice the orange and the spice from the ginger. The numbing, electric quality of the peppercorn is still present, but it’s subtle. You’ll also notice the burn of the pepper flakes in your throat. This five-spice oil is a complex condiment.

Five Heaps: Noodles and Savory Chinese Spices

Often called Chengdu noodles because it’s made in Chengdu. The heaps are the garnishes that guests can choose to mix into this noodle dish.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb fresh or frozen Hong Kong noodles (long and thin)

Dressing

  • 2 tbs toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 tbs five-spice oil
  • 2 tbs Chinese sesame paste or peanut butter
  • 2 tbs water
  • 1 tbs soy sauce
  • 2 tsp unseasoned Chinese or Japanese rice vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp roasted Sichuan pepper-salt (scant)
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp chile oil (optional)

Five Heaps

  • 1 cup risp green vegetable (choose one): slivered fresh snow peas or sugar snap peas, slivered string beans or Chinese long beans cut into 2-inch lengths, slivered celery hearts and inner ribs cut into 2-inch lengths, slivered seedless cucumber
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned or shredded
  • 1 cup radishes, shredded
  • 1 cup• 1 cup Black Forest ham, slivered, or cook Black Forest ham, slivered, or cooked chicken, shredded

Garnish

  • Fresh coriander, coarsely chopped

Cooking Instructions

Start by boiling some Hong Kong noodles for about 3 minutes. You can make the dressing in about the same time.

The dressing for this dish is traditionally made with sesame paste. If you don’t have that on hand, you can substitute peanut butter. In a food processor, combine peanut butter, toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, five-flavor oil, sugar, and Sichuan pepper-salt. If the dressing is too thick, you may also need to add some water. Make sure the dressing is fairly sharp because it has to flavor both the noodles and some of the garniture. 

You can make this dressing in large batches and keep it in the refrigerator.


When the noodles are done, drain them and add a bit of five-flavor oil to keep them from sticking. Then toss with the dressing.

To present this salad, put the noodles directly in the center of a plate. Around the noodles, arrange green beans, ham, bean sprouts, snow peas, carrots, and radishes. Drizzle a bit more of the five-flavor oil over all, then sprinkle with Sichuan pepper-salt and fresh cilantro. When you taste the dish, pay attention to the electric flavor of the Sichuan peppercorns, whether it comes from the pepper-salt or five-flavor oil.

Learn more about the many commonplace and exotic spices from northern Europe

Chinese Spices

Common Questions About Chinese Spices

Q: What are the most popular spices in China?

The list of the most popular spices in China is massive, so the top three would be considered ginger, garlic, and star anise.

Q: What is Chinese 5-spice made of?

The ingredients for Chinese 5-spice are most often Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, fennel seeds, star anise, and cloves, but there are some with variations on the 5 spices.

Q: Why is white pepper more often found in Chinese cooking?

White pepper is lighter in flavor and texture and tends to go well with the style of sauces in much of Chinese cooking. Additionally, it does not show up on the food and so is an aesthetic choice.

Q: What is the flavor profile of Chinese 5-spice?

Chinese 5-spice has a warm and very floral, aromatic profile with definite sweetness from the Chinese cinnamon, fennel, clove and anise.

This article was updated on 1/15/2019

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