Let`s say it how it is – spices in Chinese cuisine doesn`t get the recognition they should. Everything is all about the different sauces and condiments, but everyone seems to forget how the spices are as important as everything else. So, we summed up 5 of the most popular/most used Chinese spices, so you can get to know the different flavours of the cuisine even more.
- Ginger and
Both garlic and ginger contributed to the diet of several ancient cultures. Of the two, garlic has always laid a greater claim on our imagination, probably because of the widespread belief in its curative powers. Exhausted Egyptian slaves were fed garlic to help them summon up enough energy to continue building the pyramids. The Romans swore by it, feeding it to their gladiators before battles. Medieval banquets included garlic, and there is some evidence that it provided protection against the plague. More recently, scientific researchers have credited garlic with the ability to cure everything from high blood pressure to diabetes.
It is difficult to trace the origins of garlic, which is a member of the same family as the onion. Some experts believe it originated in Russia’s Siberian desert and then spread throughout Asia, the Mediterranean and finally Europe. But whatever its birthplace, the Chinese were using garlic by 3,000 BC. As for ginger, experts say it is probably native to southeast Asia — certainly the Chinese have been aware of ginger since ancient times.
Garlic’s pungent odor features prominently in Szechuan and northern-style cooking. Szechuan dishes are famous for their incendiary spicing. Ginger is a common ingredient in Cantonese cooking, which is characterized by subtle seasoning and a light touch with sauces. Szechuan cooks also make liberal use of ginger, and many dishes contain both ginger and garlic. Hot and Sour Soup, originating in Szechuan, is one example. But these are generalizations: both garlic and ginger can be found in dishes throughout China. And of course, both of these aromatics are used to flavor the oil in stir-fries.
- Star anise
One of the most dominant spices in Chinese cooking, is the flower of a small evergreen of the magnolia family. Its botanical name is Illicium verum. Believed domesticated in south China and later in southeast Asia, one of the earliest records of this spice appears during the Tang Dynasty (608 – 906 CE) in medical journals. In the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), this seasoning item was mentioned as ‘tribute levied for the emperor.’ Later, one reads about it as ‘Siberian anise’ or ‘Siberian cardamon.’
Technically a fruit, it is picked green and dried in the sun, often attached to the branch or twig it grew on. Drying it this way, it turns reddish brown. In cooking, depending on your taste, use either the whole star or just a few carpels. Too much makes star anise over-powering and it can give the dish it is used in a bitter after taste. Besides its use in flavoring food, star anise is also used in the canning and other industries as a food preservative. In addition, steam distillation of this spice produces an oil used in anise-flavored drinks and other commercial preparations.
Ginger and star anise are often used together in food preparations. They are said to reduce the ‘cold’ nature of the food. When cooking game such as pheasant, duck, rabbit or quail, this ginger-star anise combination does a good job to flavor, blend, and enhance the unique taste of the main course. In addition, this combo masks some of the strong, wild, and undesirable tastes associated with game.
In cooking, we often use the combination of ginger and star anise to prepare red-cooked beef, chicken, or duck. When preparing Shanghai smoked fish or other smoked meats, it is often the main spice. Even when pork feet, pork hock, or stomach is prepared, star anise adds special aroma and flavor to these dishes. Keep in mind that star anise is a very strong spice. Therefore, when cooking a whole chicken, only a few carpels are needed to flavour the entire dish.
Dried red chilli pepper (干红辣椒) or gān hóng là jiāo (干红辣椒) are the stuff of magic. From the exclusivity of being a chilehead and torturing yourself with the hottest of hot chiles to the joy of watching someone eat a chile for the first time, you are engulfed in a new, hotter world once you have got a hankering for these. Chiles are believed to be indigenous to the Andean region of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru dating back more than 10,000 years. They were a key ingredient in the diets of the Mayans and the Aztecs and have since become a staple in diets from around the world. Dried chile peppers have many different flavors, ranging from earthy, floral, fruity, hot, smoky, and sweet. They come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, and there are more than 3,000 known varieties around the world. There are five species within the Capsicum (C.) genus, but the two that produce the most popular chiles are Capsicum annum which tend to be larger and have more complex flavors and Capsicum frutescens which tend to be smaller, with simpler flavors and more heat. The heat of all chiles is found inside of their innards and seeds, so it can be lessened by their removal if desired.
Peppers can be dried, kept fresh, frozen or pickled. If you want red chili pepper flakes, allow the peppers to dry. You can do so by stringing peppers and hanging them on a wall. To string peppers, make a small opening or slit just below each pepper stem and use a needle to go through these slits and string the peppers together. Hang the string of peppers in a warm, dry place.
- Sichuan pepper
Speaking of traditional spices the one that always stands out is the Sichuan pepper. It is native to the Sichuan province of China and is not related to black pepper which is native to India. Before Asian cultures were introduced to chile pepper, Sichuan pepper was used along with ginger to give heat to many dishes. The heat in modern Sichuan cooking comes instead from red chile pepper, introduced to Asia in the 15th century. Sichuan pepper is still called for in many traditional Chinese recipes.
All in all it is a fragrant but mouth-numbing spice. The aroma of Szechuan peppercorn has been likened to lavender. However, its main claim to fame is the powerful numbing sensation it causes around the mouth. When married with chili peppers (the other key ingredient in Szechuan cuisine),it is believed this numbing effect reduces the chili pepper’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the chili’s intense, fruity flavor.The Szechuan peppercorn by itself does not have more spicy hotness than black peppercorns, but the mouth tingle acts to enhance tastes.
You can find Szechuan peppercorn at Asian markets and specialty spice purveyors. It may be sold under different names, such as dried prickly ash, dehydrated prickly ash, dried peppercorn, flower pepper, Indonesian lemon pepper, or the Mandarin name of hua jiao. After purchase, store Szechuan peppercorn in a sealed jar away from light. Add Sichuan peppers to your stir fries, salads and any braised dishes of your choice!