Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Mar 11, 2008 11:42 AM

question about chinese spices

Hello, I am not necessarily new to cooking, but after moving in with my meat-eating boyfriend (i am vegetarian), I have become more motivated to cook different foods, etc. He LOVES chinese, and well, I am willing to try new recipes and new things, but wanted to first get some ideas on what are the most essential chinese spices I should buy. I did a little bit of brief research and found:

--Chinese 5-spice
--white pepper
--sizhuan peppercorns
--cassia bark
--sesame seeds
--hot red pepper flakes
--what about coriander or fennel or cloves? I see that sometimes too.

Am I missing any and/or are any of these not really used that much (if so, I won't waste my money!)? I just want the most often used.


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I've never used cassia bark (doesn't mean it's not common). I do use star anise for long simmering meat dishes. I don't use coriander, fennel or cloves in chinese cooking but do use them. I don't know if you consider it a spice but I use sesame oil pretty often.

    3 Replies
    1. re: chowser

      I haven't used my cassia bark yet, but it's called for in one of Dunlop's stock recipes, as are fennel and cloves, fwiw.

      1. re: MMRuth

        We all use cassia in its ground form, but we call it cinnamon. Unground it is a thick bark. There may be some difference between the tight 'swizzle stick' bark, and the flatter version that I've bought in Vietnamese groceries. Mexican groceries sell the true cinnamon bark, which is thin and tightly rolled, and not as pungent.


        1. re: paulj

          The cassia bark that I bought in Chinatown was a "looser" roll than the traditional cinnamon sticks.

    2. Have you checked out this month's Cookbook of the Month threads by any chance? Those might be helpful - a lot of discussion of ingredients.

      I do have fennel seeds for some of the dishes we've been cooking. Haven't heard of paprika being used, so far. And of course - there are all of the various chili condiments.

      Here's a link to our Chinese Cookbook of the Month for this month:

      And, as an added incentive for maybe joining us, a post from a new participant:

      On the first link, there are a number of links to online recipes, in case that might be useful for you.

      1. 5-spice, white pepper, Szechuan peppercorns, whole dried chilies and sesame seeds are definite must-haves. Cassia bark is something you'll occasionally come across along with star anise (similar to fennel), however you can always use stick cinnamon in place of cassia bark. I have yet to come across paprika, coriander or cloves.

        You may also wish to invest in some non-dry ingredients like black bean paste, black vinegar, rice vinegar, hoisin, light AND dark soy sauce, rice wine, oyster sauce, sesame and peanut oil.

        5 Replies
        1. re: JungMann

          I agree with JungMann. Soy sauce is a must and I've been using oyster sauce, hoisin sauce and sesame oil more frequently. Also, you will probably be delighted by the taste of rice vinegar. I hardly use my 5-spice blend ... but I'm still learning and finding recipes.

          1. re: dfrostnh

            And I would get both dark and light soy sauce - I'd never used Chinese soy sauce before, and there is definitely a difference.

          2. re: JungMann

            Or fermented black beans as a dry alternative to bean paste.

            1. re: JungMann

              Hot chili oil, also dried black mushrooms, tiger lily, and cloud ear. The shelf life is indefinite. These and a variety of noodles, rice wrappers,and sticks.
              Canned: water chestnut and bamboo shoots if you can't get fresh and also baby corn.

              Oh and dry sherry if it hasn't been suggested, that's a condiment I use a lot.

              1. re: chef chicklet

                Oooh, forgot about dried black mushrooms! Definitely a must-have.

            2. All fine recs so far. I've never run across paprika or cloves on their own in Chinese cuisine. Five Spice Powder though contains ground fennel seeds, star anise, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Light soy sauce is used for flavor, dark soy sauce for color. The best rice wine I've found is the Pagoda brand Shao Xing with 16.0% alcohol content. Steer clear of cheap brands that have very little alcohol but plenty of added salt. And we're talking $12 for a bottle of Pagoda. Coriander is used in Hunan food as in a Spicy Coriander Salad which Fuchsia Dunlop has a recipe for "Revolutionary Chinese Cooking: Recipes from Hunan Province."

              Wok Mei has a line of all-natural Chinese sauces (Hoisin, Plum and Oyster) with no MSG that I've just purchased.


              1. I know you already have some of these things on your list, but here's the list I use when I'm helping someone stock a kitchen for Chinese cooking:

                peanut oil
                arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)
                white pepper
                five spice powder
                star anise
                sesame seeds
                szechuan peppercorns
                fermented black beans
                chili garlic sauce (the one with the picture of the rooster)
                oyster sauce (lee kum kee brand -- the one with the picture of the boat)
                rice vinegar
                sesame oil
                whole dried hot peppers

                Also, you'll need a good Chinese cookbook. My personal favorite is the Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking:
                It's long out of print, but you can get a used copy for a couple bucks on

                2 Replies
                1. re: lmoy

                  Ah, just reread OP and noticed that you are a vegetarian with a meat-eating boyfriend. A tip for preparing tofu for meat-eaters that can't get used to the texture: freeze it ahead of time (at least 24 hours), then defrost it in boiling water (about 10 minutes at full boil), and squeeze out the water by pressing between two plates.

                  Freezing completely changes the texture of tofu, and a lot of people who normally find tofu unpalatable are able to eat tofu that has been frozen. Tofu that has been frozen also becomes more sponge-like and absorbent, meaning it will absorb a marinade much more easily than tofu that has not been frozen.

                  For a meat substitute in a vegetarian stir-fry:
                  Cube the thawed and pressed tofu.
                  Marinate briefly in a mixture of light soy sauce, water, minced ginger, a little sesame oil, and a little rice vinegar.
                  Dredge the tofu cubes in a cornstarch/cornmeal mixture (about half and half) to coat.
                  Fry the tofu in hot peanut oil.

                  Tofu prepared like this can be great to eat on its own (try adding additional seasonings to the coating, like coriander, hot pepper, and some more ginger) -- sort of a twist on veggie chicken nuggets -- or it can be reserved and added to a veggie stir-fry at the end (if you put it in any earlier, the sauce will make the breading become mushy) as a meat substitute. I love to put this tofu in a stir-fry with broccoli, cashew nuts, and toasted sesame seeds. YUM!

                  1. re: lmoy

                    I used smoked tofu for the first time, and it also has a wonderful flavor and texture.