Essential Asian Spices such as star anise and cinnamon for cooking Asian food, from Chinese cuisine to Indian cooking, at home.
Asian spices are a diverse and flavorful group of ingredients that can elevate your Asian dishes to new levels. If you understand how to use spices, you'll blow everyone away with your cooking skills!
If you're looking for Asian herbs such as pandan and kaffir lime leaves, click here. (Too much info for 1 post!)
Tip: If you don't want to shop online, Walmart and Whole Foods usually have a better spice selection than Trader Joe's.
- What It Is: they're the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum. They can vary in color from red to purple and there are many varieties of chilies such as bird's eye chilis (used in Thai cooking) and Gochugaru (used in Korean food.)
- Taste: they add heat to recipes. It can range from mild (a warm taste) to so hot it'll burn your tongue off!
- Where to Buy: you can get some varieties from the mainstream grocery store. For more exotic varieties, you may need to go to the farmer's market or Asian market. You can even grow them at home!
- How to Use: they can be sliced in their fresh form, dried, or dried and blitzed into powder.
Used in these Recipes
Tip: do not touch your eyes after handling chilies as they can really sting! Even just stir-frying hotter varieties of chili can release fumes that will burn your skin!
- What It Is: Ceylon Cinnamon is a warming spice commonly used in Chinese and Indian cuisine. It is a medium-brown, long cylindrical roll but ground cinnamon powder is also readily available everywhere.
- Taste: It imparts a sweet, fragrant aroma to dishes and drinks.
- How to Use: It is common in Asian seasonings. You'll find it added to sauces, marinades, and desserts. 1 of my favorite recipes with cinnamon is Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice.
- Where to Buy: this essential Asian spice is available at any regular supermarket or online. No need to go down to the Asian market just for cinnamon!
Expert Tip: to be confused with Chinese Cinnamon/ Cassia ! The 2 look very similar but Cassia doesn't have the same healthy properties as Cinnamon.
Used in these Recipes
- What It Is: Cloves are an expensive small, dark-brown spice.
- Taste: assertive, slightly sweet.
- Where to Buy: You can get cloves at the spice aisle of regular supermarkets.
- How to Use: found in many Asian dishes, especially Indian cuisine. used in spice blends like Chinese Five Spice and Garam Masala.
Used in these Recipes
- What It Is: the dried seeds of the coriander plant (also known as cilantro.) They looks somewhat similar to white peppercorns but are smaller in size. The leaves, roots and stalk are also edible. (See the section on Herbs below.)
- Taste: warm, citrusy taste that pairs well with other spices like cumin seed and ginger.
- Where to Buy: they're available everywhere from Walmart to Whole Foods, in the whole spice form or in ground powder form.
- How to Use: They're widely used in Perankan, Indian, Thai, and Middle Eastern dishes. You can usually find them in Madras Curry Powder.
Used in these Recipes
- What It Is: a dried seed used in many Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, Indian, and Filipino dishes. It is long and thin, like a small dark grain of rice.
- Taste: nutty and slightly sweet, with a slightly herbal flavor.
- Where to Buy: Comes in whole spice and ground powder form. Any supermarket or on Amazon.
- How to Use: As one of the most versatile Asian spices, it works well in vegetable and meat dishes alike. The flavor is very strong though so don't use too much cumin in a recipe.
Cumin is .
Note: Curry powder is a not a single spice. Rather it is a blend of spices such as turmeric, coriander, cumin, and sometimes ginger and garlic. (Different curry mixes use different spices in different quatities.) It is widely used in Indian, Singaporean, Malaysian and Sri Lankan cuisine, to give warmth and depth of flavor to curries, soups, and stews.
- What It Is: dried seeds of the fennel plant. Looks a little similar to cumin but is slightly larger and with a greenish tinge.
- Taste: sweet, slightly bitter
- Where to Buy: you can get them at Walmart or on Amazon
- How to Use: often used in teas, Middle Eastern dukkah, Chinese 5-spice, Sichuan cooking and Indian food. You'll find it in spice blends like Garam Masala and added to pickles and chutneys. (You can use fennel seeds in sweet and savory dishes, whilst cumin is usually just used in savory.)
- What It Is: a lesser-known relative of ginger, featuring a sharper, spicier flavor. (Both are rhizomes.)
- Taste: peppery, earthy, almost bitter in contrast to ginger's slight sweetness
- Where to Buy: You can get galangal powder at Walmart but Asian cooking prefers fresh, which can be found at the Asian grocer. (Galangal paste is considered better than powder.)
- How to Use: It's commonly used in Thai and Indonesian cuisine- such as in Tom Yum Goong soup- where it brings a unique taste to dishes like soups and curries.
- What It Is: a versatile root used across various Asian cuisines, such as from Indian to Thai. Along with garlic and spring onion, it's considered 1 of the 3 ingredients in the "Holy Trinity" of Chinese cooking (similar to the mirepoix in French food.)
- Taste: warm and spicy, zesty and a little sweet
- Where to Buy: you can find fresh ginger and dried ginger powder in most supermarkets.
- How to Use: the flavor works well in syrups, stir-fries, soups, and curries. Traditional recipes almost always use fresh ginger root but ground ginger is a common substitute in modern recipes.
Used in these Recipes
Tip: the easiest way to peel ginger is to use the back of the spoon.
- What It Is: a dried black spice native to India which has both culinary and slight medical properties
- Taste: warm with some citrusy notes
- Where to Buy: honestly, almost everywhere!
- How to Use: it comes as a small round black ball. You can add these directly to dry rubs, stews and braises or grind them in a pepper mill. (Alternatively you can also get it pre-ground in powder form.)
- What It Is: like black pepper, it's the dried berry of a pepper plant but processed differently
- Taste: lighter than black pepper but still warming
- Where to Buy: Walmart, Amazon or Asian and Swedish grocery stores
- How to Use: a classic Chinese spice used in everything from braised meat to congee. Use sparingly as the flavor is strong! Can be omitted but adding white pepper makes the dish taste more authentic.
Used in these Recipes
- What It Is: small dark seeds, shaped like a kidney, from the opium poppy plant.
- Taste: They provide a nutty taste and a slight crunchiness to the dishes they are added to, somewhat similar to sesame seeds.
- Where to Buy: online or in grocery stores such as Trader Joes
- How to Use: Poppy seeds are often used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. In addition to being used as a topping for baked goods, they can also be ground into a paste and used as a thickening agent in sauces, curries, or gravies.
- What It Is: Sesame is a common flavor in Asian cuisines such as Japanese, Korean and Chinese. It is introduced by use of sesame oil as well as dried sesame seeds. The seeds come in two varieties, black sesame seeds and white.
- Taste: nutty and aromatic
- Where to Buy: most grocery stores or online
- How to Use: To get the most flavor, they are often toasted and sprinkled over noodles, salads, and stir-fries for added flavor and crunch. You can even add them to dishes such as Mayak Avocado! Alternatively, you can grind them into a powder or pound into a paste for use in sesame drinks and desserts.
Used in These Recipes
- What It Is: Sichuan peppercorns are not true peppercorns despite their name!
- Taste: a unique numbing flavor
- Where to Buy: Walmart, Amazon or Chinese markets
- How to Use: They are most associated with Chinese cuisine, particularly Szechuan dishes, where they contribute their distinct flavor.
- What It Is: Native to China and Vietnam, this spice is actually the seed pod of the Illlicium Verum plant It looks like a dark brown star with 8 arms!
- Taste: this strong, aromatic spice has a flavor similar to licorice.
- How to Use: prevalent in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. It goes well with braised meats, soups, and broths. Star Anise is also a key component of Chinese Five Spice, a Chinese spice powder used in many recipes. It's also a key ingredient of Masala Chai.
- Where to Find: you can find star anise pods at Walmart, on Amazon or in Asian markets.
Used in these Recipes
What It Is: In its fresh form, it is a root similar to ginger but, when cut, the exposed flesh is a much warmer yellow. It is more readily found in its dried form as powdered turmeric, a bright yellow fine powder. Turmeric substitutes include ginger and other spices.
Taste: it has a warm, earthy flavor
How to Use:
- Used widely for its flavor in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine, such as curries, soups, and rice dishes (e.g. Madras Curry Powder, Pumpkin Curry, Japanese S&B Curry, rice cooker turmeric rice etc)
- Known for its potential health benefits, due to its curcumin content, it is often found in health foods these days, such as turmeric latte and turmeric ginger tea.
- Lastly, it is sometimes used to add an appetising golden tinge to recipes, such as Mochi Cheese Bread and Chinese Corn Egg Drop Soup.
Note: turmeric stains things very quickly- it's used in some natural dyes- so handle carefully!
Chinese Five Spice
- What It Is: the most commonly used Chinese spice blend made of several spices (not necessarily 5) such as star anise, fennel, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns and more.
- Taste: warm, a little sweet and licorice-y
- Where to Buy: readily available everywhere but why not make your own 5-spice? It's easy!
- How to Use: add it to stews, braises, and Chinese sauces such as Char Siu etc!
Used in These Recipes
- What It Is: an Indian blend made from many different spices such as cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, cardamom, and other spices. It's a signature spice blend in Indian cooking.
- Taste: It imparts a rich, warming flavor to stews, curries, and rice dishes.
- Where to Buy: most Indian families make their own. You can find a pre-made mix at Asian markets or on Amazon.
- How to Use: besides curries, add it to sauces and stews. You can also use it as a dry rub or in marinade.
Madras Curry Powder
- What It Is: an orange coloured blend of spices or British-invented curry powder
- Taste: there isn't a definitive madras curry powder recipe so the taste can vary. Generally, it has a warm, spiced flavor.
- Where to Buy: you can get Madras Curry powder at most grocery stores, such as Trader Joes, or on Amazon
- How to Use: similar to garam masala powder
- What It Is: also known as Japanese Seven Spice, this red spice blend is widely used in Japanese cuisine. It consists of 7 ingredients: red chili pepper, roasted orange peel, sesame seeds, Japanese pepper (Sansho), ground ginger, nori seaweed, and poppy seeds
- Taste: slightly spice and complex
- Where to Buy: You can find Shichimi at Walmart or on Amazon
- How to Use: add it to your homemade salted popcorn or on top of noodle soups such as udon. You can also pair it with grilled meats, and onigiri rice balls.
In Asian Cuisines
Some of the most popular herbs and spices in Chinese cuisine are garlic, ginger, star anise, and Sichuan pepper.
Rice and vegetables are common ingredients, while soups and stews often incorporate aromatics like cinnamon and cassia bark. Chinese 5 spice blend is widely used- despite its name, it can contain more than 5 spices, usually a mix of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, Sichuan pepper, and star anise.
Some commonly used spices in Indian cooking include turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fenugreek. Curries are an essential part of Indian cuisine and often incorporate spice blends such as garam masala or curry powder.
A variety of herbs, such as mint, are also used as garnishes and for flavoring dishes. The health benefits of some Indian spices are well-documented, with anti-inflammatory and iron-rich properties found in spices like turmeric and cumin.
Japanese food is known for its emphasis on umami flavors and simplicity, as well as the use of delicate spices and seasonings.
Some common examples include wasabi, shichimi (seven-flavor chili pepper), and sansho pepper. Rice, soups, and pickled vegetables often feature these seasonings to enhance their natural flavors.
Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by its fresh and vibrant flavors, with a particular focus on herbs and citrus.
The use of spices is more subtle than in other Asian cuisines, but they still play an essential role in iconic dishes such as pho to create a rich yet light flavor. Commonly used spices include star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Thai cuisine is known for its combination of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors, with a variety of herbs and spices used in cooking.
Herbs play a significant role in Thai cooking as well, with Thai basil, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves featuring prominently in many dishes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Chinese cuisine utilizes a variety of spices to create bold and flavorful dishes. Some of the most common Chinese spices include star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon (cassia), cloves, fennel seeds, and cardamom. Chinese five-spice powder is a popular blend of these ingredients, resulting in a balanced mix of sweet, spicy, and earthy flavors.
There is no one-size-fits-all seasoning for Asian cuisine, as it varies greatly across different regions and countries. However, some common ingredients that are often used include ginger, garlic, soy sauce, chili peppers, and fresh herbs like cilantro and mint. It's crucial to understand the specific dish or regional cuisine to choose the appropriate seasoning for your recipe if you want it to taste authentic.
Indian cuisine is known for its liberal use of a wide variety of spices. Some popular Indian spices include cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and coriander. Other important ingredients include mustard seeds, fenugreek, and black pepper. Garam masala, a blend of various spices, is a staple in many Indian dishes, adding depth and complexity to the flavor profile.
Ginger is a versatile and widely used spice in Asian cuisine, providing both warmth and a unique flavor. (It's 1 of the 3 "holy trinity" ingredients of Chinese stir-frying.) Other spices with similar characteristics include galangal, which is often used in Thai and Indonesian dishes, and turmeric, which brings a rich, earthy taste to Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Both of these spices share ginger's signature warmth and can be used as alternatives in various recipes.
Asian cooking requires a variety of spices and seasonings to create its signature flavors. Some essential spices common to the various Asian cuisines are cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, and chilies. Additionally, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass are frequently used for their aromatic and flavor-enhancing properties. However, different Asian cuisines will use different spices and herbs.
Let me know if there are any other Asian herbs and spices that you'd like added to this list! If you enjoyed it, would you like to sign up for my Asian food newsletter?