Chinese cooking's use of spices and herbs is not easily summarized, since the difference can be significant between the regional cuisines of the four main provinces, Mandarin (Peking), Szechuan, Shanghai and Canton. Nevertheless, spices and herbs are a vital characteristic of Chinese cooking, with the latter also highly prized for their medicinal qualities.
- Cantonese cuisine is the most familiar style of Chinese food overseas, with dishes such as chow mein, roast duck and steamed ribs taken abroad by chefs from Guangdong province. In general, garlic, ginger and scallion predominate.
- Northern China's Peking cuisine also makes heavy use of garlic, while Shanghai favors sweet braised dishes and stews with lots of soy sauce that exploit the region's abundance of fish and shellfish.
- Szechuan cuisine is famed for its spices, with hot and pungent stir-fries in particular making the leap to the international stage.
- Chinese food tradition prizes the blend of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy flavors. While sauces and vinegars accomplish some of these functions, herbs and spices make their presence known.
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Chinese five spice mix offers an accessible primer to cooks ready to dabble in Chinese cuisine. In fact, the powder blend usually comprises more than five spices, and the composition of the mix can vary, but five spice typically includes Szechuan peppercorn, cinnamon, fennel, star anise, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. The powder is ideal for seasoning chicken as a dry rub, or for layering the flavors as a soup base.
Szechuan peppercorn, one of the components of five spice powder, is unique to Chinese cuisine, whereas many of the other spices and herbs used are common to Vietnamese, Mongolian, Indian and Thai cooking, among others. The peppercorns are actually no relation to black peppercorn, and are ground instead from the husks of a reddish brown dried berry. Especially if toasted first to release the aromas, Szechuan peppercorn brings a lemony, salty flavor to dishes, and is formidable at tempering strong meat or fish flavors in soups or stir-fries. While not spectacularly fiery as such, Szechuan peppercorns nevertheless lend a warm foundation to dishes, allegedly intended to counter the province's characteristic cold and damp.
Star anise, too, is one of the dominant spices in Chinese cooking. Shaped, not surprisingly, like a star, the eight-pointed dried seed pod imbues dishes with an intense licorice scent but should be removed from a soup or stock before serving. For dishes that call for an aniseed flavor, toasted fennel seeds also feature.
Ground coriander seed gives a citrus aroma to Chinese dishes, while the fresh leaves, also known as Chinese parsley, give a fragrant note to fish dishes and stews, particularly in Northern Chinese cooking. The leaves are best tossed in toward the end of cooking, as the aroma fades if left too long to simmer.
Lemongrass is common across South Asian cuisine, no doubt owing its inclusion in Chinese cuisine to those who brought back recipes from Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Crushing the tender part of the stalks and fine-shredding them in to a dish combines well with rice vinegar, but the aroma also works well in a marinade.
While China is the world's largest producer of garlic, garlic chives are a succulent substitute, bringing the same garlicky flavor to a stir-fry, but sweating gradually into long, silky leaves.
Kaempferia galanga is one of the roots used in Chinese cooking, along with fresh ginger. Popular in Szechuan cooking, where it is usually dried, galangal gives an assertively sweet taste to a dish, reminiscent of Indonesian sambal, in which it is also an ingredient. Ginger, on the other hand, is frequently selected for its heat. The combination of ginger, garlic and scallions starts many a Chinese dish, making it the equivalent of the Western mirepoix.
Particularly in Szechuan cuisine, red chili flakes feature abundantly. The fiery pods can either be chopped fresh and tossed into stir-fries, used as dried flakes or combined with oil to make a spicy infusion.
Mustard seeds come in black, white and yellow varieties. Ground into a powder, the seeds can simply add color to a sauce, but the most common function is to add heat to a dish, believed to fortify the constitution. Mustard seeds might be ground into a paste and used as a condiment, much like Western mustard, or added to pickled vegetables. The degree of heat the mustard seeds deliver intensifies according to how long the seeds are allowed to simmer.