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7 Spices Chinese Restaurants Use for Spicy Food

By Bill Kalkumnerd • Updated: 06/12/22 • 8 min read
Spices Chinese Restaurants Use for Spicy Food

Chinese restaurants are known globally for their delicious spicy foods. Also, the spice combination is deep within the Chinese culture for cooking and other medicinal reasons. However, do Chinese restaurants use just one spice, or are there several spices behind the fantastic taste of their spicy foods?  

The five-spice powder, chili pepper, ginger, garlic/onions, sesame seeds, bay leaves, and turmeric powder are seven essential spices Chinese restaurants use for spicy food. One of the seven spices combines five individual spices (cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and peppercorns) collectively known as the Chinese five-spice. 

Chinese cuisine is known worldwide as one of the spiciest foods, and, interestingly, they are also one of the most palatable and enjoyable foods. As a result, with so many do-it-yourself enthusiasts, several people want to know how many spices go into preparing one of the world’s most delicious dishes. Let’s find out the spicy food secret of most Chinese restaurants in this article!  

What Are The Seven Essential Spices Used by Chinese Restaurants?

Chinese cuisine relies heavily on balance to create the exotic taste that makes them known worldwide. Some of the spices Chinese restaurants use for spicy foods are common and well known, while others are rare. Here is a list of the essential spices used in Chinese restaurants for preparing spicy foods.

The Five-spice powder

five powder

The five-spice powder is a five-in-one spice common in traditional Chinese culinary culture. Some chefs use it as a stand-alone spice that they can sprinkle as a food seasoning or marinade for meat dishes. 

The five-spice powder combines five individual herbs and spices: cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and peppercorns. Together they yield an aromatic blend of spicy and slightly sweet flavors to create the taste balance that is unique to traditional Chinese cuisine. 

Although you can easily buy the five-spice powder in your local grocery store, you should know that most of them are customized to suit several regions. However, the beauty of the five-spice powder is that you can prepare yours at home. 

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Here is a list of the individual spices that compose the five-spice powder:

Cinnamon

The Chinese cinnamon is the type of cinnamon used in making the five-spice powder. It is also known as cassia cinnamon or gui pi and is thicker and darker than your regular cinnamon. 

Chinese cinnamon doesn’t have an intense aroma, so it blends so well in the five-spice powder. Regardless, if you make your own five-spice powder, you can use regular cinnamon. Still, you have to be careful of the quantity to avoid overshadowing the other ingredients in the five-spice powder. Chinese cinnamon is an excellent seasoning for stews and marinades.  

Star anise

Star anise is star-shaped, with eight protrusions and dark shiny seeds. It has a distinct flavor, perfect for stews, braised, and slow-cooked dishes. It is an essential component of the five-spice powder.  

Cloves

They are the dried, unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree and offer a strong sweet and pungent aroma in Chinese cuisine. Cloves can be used whole to make infusions or ground into powder as a seasoning, and they are perfect as meat seasonings and soup flavoring. 

Fennel

Fennel seeds are usually used in stews and preparing meat dishes. It has a licorice flavor similar to that of the star anise. It is used to make Chinese curry and is more common in the southern part of China and among women because of its traditional belief to enhance the yin aspect of the body.

Peppercorns

Sichuan peppercorns are distinct for their spicy solid flavors, and they also possess a substantial numbing intensity that makes them similar to black peppers. They are used in Chinese cuisine to mask meat odors or mixed with salt for fish, meat, and vegetable dishes. In traditional Chinese medicine, peppercorns are used to treat stomach disorders and colds. 

Fun Fact: According to traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese five-spice is based on the five elements (fire, water, earth, air, metal), which they believe are manifested in different body parts. Therefore, an imbalance in these elements can result in illness. So, these herbs and spices have been used to restore balance in the body. In the same way, the Chinese five-spice powder became a culinary force for restoring gustatory balance in traditional Chinese cuisine.  

Chili pepper

Chili pepper is an essential spice component of most Chinese spicy food, and they are ground to produce chili powder or chili flakes. Chillis are crucial for adding the extra kick or zing to most Chinese spicy foods to give them their hot flavor.

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Ginger

Although ginger is a herb, it is loosely regarded as a spice used in most Chinese cuisines to season meat and fish. It is also an excellent flavoring for soups, stews, and sauces.

Garlic and Onions

Although garlic has an off-putting smell, it is an essential spice in most Chinese spicy foods. It is used chiefly to make stir-fries with onions and meat and fish dishes. It also makes an excellent marinade agent for enhancing meat’s natural flavor to yield the fifth flavor–Umami.  

Sesame seeds

Both black and white sesame seeds are vital in Chinese spicy food cuisine. They add texture and flavor to traditional dishes and are usually sprinkled on top of meals as garnishing. Sesame seeds also yield sesame oil, which is an essential component for making most sauces and Chinese dips.

Bay Leaves

They are popularly used in traditional Chinese cuisine to mask the odor of meat. Also, bay leaves are essential for making slow-cooked meat dishes because the flavor releases gradually with continuous heating. Bay leaves are also used for adding flavor to pickled vegetables.  

Turmeric powder

Turmeric powder is mainly used as a blend with curry powder. It is famous for its natural bright yellow color, which adds color and excitement to most dishes. It is also a potent anti-inflammatory agent. 

Below is a table summarizing the seven essential spices used in Chinese restaurants and other crucial details.

Chinese SpicesPrimary UsesHealth BenefitsRisks, side effects/warning
GingerFor stir-fried dishes soups, and saucesFor colds/flu
Balances body fluids
Stress relief
Anti-inflammatory properties
No risks or side effects.
Garlic and onionsFor stir-fried dishes
Used as a food flavoring
Meat dishes
Antibacterial
Anti Inflammatory
Balances blood pressure
Enhance blood circulation
No risks/side effects for onions.
Garlic has an offensive odor.
Star aniseFor food seasoning.
An essential component of five-spice powder
Antioxidants
Supports respiratory health
Antifungal agent
No risks in Chinese food flavoring, however, you should be careful of the Japanese star anise, which is not to be ingested.
ClovesAn essential component of five-spice powder
Meat seasoning
Soup flavoring
Aids digestive health
Immune support
Oral diseases
Aphrodisiac properties
Prevents blood clots and is not suitable for people on warfarin medication or other anticoagulant and antiplatelet medication.
Chili pepperFor making chili powders and sauces
Food seasoning
Essential vitamins and minerals High capsaicin might be harmful to people with ulcers, asthma, and high blood pressure.
Chinese cinnamonFlavoring for pastriesAntioxidant
For colds and flu
Mild antidepressant
High coumarin could be a potential risk for most people with low blood sugar with Chinese cinnamon compared to regular cinnamon.
Sesame seedsFood seasoning 
For making sesame oil used in most sauces
Supports bone health
Antioxidants
Balance hormones
It is a potential allergen for people with nut allergies.
Blood-thinning properties.
Fennel seedsFood flavoringBalances female hormones
Aids lactation
Lowers blood sugar level
Potential allergen for most people
Blood-thinning properties.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do most Chinese restaurants cook so fast?

Most Chinese restaurants cook so quickly because they utilize very high temperatures of about 200 degrees centigrade, approximately 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, food cooks faster in a smaller wok, leading to the cooking speed of most Chinese restaurants.

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What traditional spice powder makes foods in Chinese restaurants so spicy?

Chili powder is like an all-in-one spice used in most Chinese restaurants for spicy foods. It is an aromatic powder that combines the flavors of chili peppers, cumin, salt, garlic, coriander, cloves, allspice, and oregano.

What sauce is typical among most Chinese restaurants for spicy foods?

Most Chinese restaurants use Cantonese sauce as a base for most dishes. It is made of soy sauce to create a distinct flavor in most Chinese restaurant dishes, and it is also essential for releasing the fifth flavor, Umami.   

Final Thoughts

Chinese cuisine remains among the most appreciated dishes worldwide thanks to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants. The reason is that natural spice blends are rooted in ancient Chinese culinary culture. Now, you know the secret behind the spicy delight of most Chinese restaurants. Fortunately, you can use most of them at home to create the same effect!

Bill Kalkumnerd

I am Bill, I am the Owner of HappySpicyHour, a website devoted to spicy food lovers like me. Ramen and Som-tum (Papaya Salad) are two of my favorite spicy dishes. Spicy food is more than a passion for me - it's my life! For more information about this site Click

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