Essential Chinese Spices and Pantry Staples

These Chinese spices and pantry staples are essential ingredients you’ll need to make mouthwatering authentic Chinese recipes at home!

chinese spices, herbs and condiment son white table

When you’re new to Chinese cuisine and you find a recipe that you want to make, it can be difficult to find a local source for some of the ingredients. In addition to that, you may not even know what some of those ingredients are.

If you can relate, this resource is definitely for you! Bookmark this page and refer to it whenever you need information on a specific Chinese spice or condiment.

NOTE: Whenever possible, we also include links to online sources where you can buy the ingredients. Some of them are Amazon affiliate links. This means, there is no difference in your cost to buy them, but we receive a small commission for your purchase. This helps us to keep creating recipes for you to make, so thank you for your support! For more information, see our privacy policy.

Chinese Spices and Pantry Staples

Here are the essentials that you’ll find in almost every home kitchen in China.

(data sources: lots of research, taste testing and from a few favorite sites The Woks of Life, and the Omnivore’s Cookbook)

Chinese spices- ground or powdered

Five Spice Powder – Wu Xiang Fen
This famous 5 spice mixture, also known as wǔxiāng fěn (五香粉), is usually a blend of Sichuan peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon. However, the spice can vary depending upon the brand.

The blend combines the five primary flavors of Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It is great for marinades and dry rubs for meats. I make my own Five Spice Powder, give it a try!

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five spice powder in small white bowl

White Pepper – Bai Hu Jiao Fen
The white peppercorn has a distinctly different taste than the black peppercorn, and is always the preferred choice for Chinese cooking.

White pepper has a much hotter taste that follows right down to the back of your throat, giving a prominent flavor to soups.

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ground white pepper in small white bowl

Ground Ginger
Ginger powder or jiāng fěn (姜粉) is a must have item in your pantry for baking and Chinese cooking. It is pale yellow in color and has a pungent, spicy smell to indicate freshness.

Ground ginger has a warm, slightly sweet and spicy bite. The flavor is not as strong as fresh ginger.

Substitute 1/4 teaspoon dry ground ginger for every 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger root.

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ground ginger powder in white bowl

Chinese spices- whole seeds and pods

Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds are tiny, cream-colored and shaped like teardrops. They have a mild nutty flavor which is further enhanced when the seeds are roasted. When you use them, the aroma is distinct and noticeable.

There are 4 varieties: white, black, yellow and red. Black sesame seeds a typically used for making sesame oil.

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sesame seeds in small white bowl

Sichuan Peppercorn – Hua Jiao
Known for the slight numbing sensation it leaves on the tongue, the Red Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorn, or hóng huā jiāo (花椒 ), gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor. It’s used both in whole and ground form.

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one of the most common Chinese spices, pink sichuan peppercorns

Dried Red Chilies
Dried Red Chili peppers, or gān hóng là jiāo (干红辣椒), come in a vast number of varieties–too many for us to keep up with. In general, the smaller the chili pepper, the more spicy heat they have.

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dried red chiles on white board

Star Anise – Da Liao
Star Anise (大料, Da Liao) is sweet with a strong licorice-like aroma and flavor, and has warming properties. It is commonly used in Chinese kitchens for stewing or braising, especially for pork dishes.

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whole star anise spice on white background

Chinese sauces and other essential pantry staples

Light Soy Sauce

Soy sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油) is a liquid condiment and seasoning, originating in China. Brewing takes place by fermenting soybeans, grains (usually wheat), and mold cultures/yeast.

The word for light soy sauce in Chinese translates to “fresh”, as it is traditionally made from the first pressing of fermented soybeans.

It is the most commonly used Chinese sauce for cooking. Do not confuse this for Light Soy Sauce from Kikkoman, which is a low sodium variety.

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light soy sauce bottle on white tabletop

Dark Soy Sauce – Soy sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油) is a liquid condiment and seasoning, originating in China. Brewing it requires fermenting soybeans, grains (usually wheat), and mold cultures/yeast.

As it often contains added sugar, it is thicker and sweeter than light soy sauce. It’s used in small amounts, for color as well as flavor in dishes.

It typically contains more sodium than light soy sauce; about 15% more, to be exact. However, the flavor is balanced by sweetness and is therefore not as intensely salty. Tamari is a good substitute if you can’t find Dark Soy Sauce.

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dark soy sauce bottle on white tabletop

Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce (háo yóu, 蚝油) is a savory Chinese sauce made with boiled oysters and seasonings such as soy sauce and garlic.

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bottle of oyster sauce on white tabletop

Hoisin Sauce
Hoisin Sauce (hǎixiān jiàng, 海鲜酱) is a thick, dark condiment with a sweet, salty flavor. This Chinese pantry staple is made with fermented soybean paste, as well as additional seasonings like garlic, chilies, and sesame.

Also known as Sweet bean sauce (tián miàn jiàng, 甜面酱), this essential pantry staple is made from wheat flour, sugar, salt, and fermented yellow soybeans.

As the name suggests, the sauce is a bit sweeter than other salty bean pastes.  Some brands and recipes use the terms hoisin sauce and sweet bean sauce interchangeably, but, generally, commercial Hoisin sauces are thinner, lighter and sweeter than a traditional sweet bean sauce.

One of the most delicious ways to use Hoisin is on Moo Shu Pork (spread on the delicate pancake prior to filling).

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bottle of hoisin sauce on white tabletop

Water Chestnuts (sliced)
Water Chestnuts or mǎ tí (馬蹄) in Chinese, are a crunchy tuber vegetable that grows in marshes and muddy waters. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and in spite of its name, bears no resemblance, flavor or texture to the chestnut. Water chestnuts are a common ingredient in many vegetable stir-fry dishes and sometimes are also added to shrimp dumplings like my Shrimp and Pork Shumai.

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sliced water chestnuts in white bowl

Bamboo Shoots (sliced)
Chinese bamboo shoots (竹笋, zhú sǔn), also known as bamboo sprouts, are conical, creamy-coloured tender shoots cut from the bamboo plant. They have a mild flavor and crunchy texture and are widely used throughout Asia to bulk out stir-fries, soups and other dishes.

Canned bamboo shoots are easier to obtain than fresh ones, and are available whole, shredded, or sliced. After opening the can, be sure to drain and rinse them. Unused bamboo shoots should be stored in the refrigerator in a jar of water for up to three weeks; just remember to change the water daily.

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sliced bamboo shoots in small white bowl

Corn Starch
Corn Starch sometimes known as cornflour, is the starch derived from corn grain. It is used quite often to thicken the sauce of Chinese stir-fries and other Asian dishes with sauce or gravy.

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container of Argo brand cornstarch on a white tabletop

Fried Onions
Fried onions and or shallots are a crunchy and savory garnish for soups and other dishes.

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bottle of fried onions on white tabletop


Toasted Sesame Oil
Toasted sesame oil is valued for its strong and fragrant flavor. The flavor is deep, earthy, nutty and rich. In comparison, cold-pressed sesame oil is much gentler in flavor.

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bottle of toasted sesame oil

Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is widely used around the world, but is an essential pantry staple in Chinese, South Asian and Southeast Asian cooking. It has a high smoke point of 437℉ (225℃) and is commonly used to fry foods.

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quart of peanut oil on white tabletop

Chili Oil
Red chili oil or 红辣椒油, pronounced hóng là jiāo yóu in Mandarin Chinese, is a very popular condiment for Chinese food but also an essential pantry staple.

Red chili oil is simply pure infused oil, and does not contain any red pepper flakes. Therefore, it is a good choice when you don’t want any chili flakes in your dish, or simply need the convenience of chili oil in a bottle.

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bottle of chili oil on white tabletop

Chinese vinegars and wines

Shaoxing wine (Shào xīng jiǔ, 绍兴酒)
Chinese rice wine, mǐ jiǔ, (米酒) or yellow wine, huang jiu, (黄酒) is used frequently in marinades and sauces. The most famous rice wine comes from the city of Shaoxing, in eastern Zhejiang Province.

Shaoxing wine has a more complex and deeper taste than clear rice wine.  It is a bit like using salt versus light soy sauce, where you get sodium and saltiness from both but one adds a rich taste of soy.

The same is true for the lighter flavor of rice wine versus the stronger taste of the Shaoxing. The wine is essential for Hong Shao or red-cooked dishes.
If you need a substitute for Shaoxing, Japanese sake and dry sherry are good choices.

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bottle of shaoxing wine on white tabletop

Rice Vinegar
Generally speaking, there are three types of rice vinegar (mi cù, 米醋) used in Chinese cooking. They are red, white, and black (see black rice vinegar).

Although the flavor is milder, white rice vinegar comes closest in flavor to Western apple cider vinegar.

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bottle of rice wine vinegar on white tabletop

Chinese Black Vinegar

Chinkiang vinegar (Zhenjiang vinegar, 镇江香醋) is a type of Chinese black vinegar. It is made from various grains and is aged until the color turns dark brown or inky black. It has a rich, pungent flavor, sometimes with a hint of sweetness. It has a fermented malty taste and woody character that distinguish it from the light colored and fruity rice vinegar.

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bottle of black rice vinegar on white table top


Chile Paste
Made with chili pepper, rice vinegar, and salt, this sauce is spicy and fragrant, and will keep in the fridge for months. It a fantastic dipping sauce or use in marinades and stir fry for a kick of heat.

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bottle of sambal oelek chili paste on white tabletop

Chile and Garlic Paste
Made with chili pepper, garlic, rice vinegar, and salt, this Chinese pantry staple is spicy and fragrant, and will keep in the fridge for months. It a fantastic dipping sauce or use in marinades and stir fry for a kick of heat and garlic.

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bottle of chili and garlic paste (a Chinese pantry staple) on white tabletop

Fermented Black Bean Paste
Black bean garlic sauce (suàn róng dòuchǐ jiàng, 蒜蓉豆豉酱) is made from grinding salted/fermented black soybeans with garlic and other seasonings. Rather than using whole fermented black beans and hand-chopped garlic to make a dish, this sauce comes ready to use.

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fermented black bean jar

Dried Chinese pantry staples

Dried Shiitake Mushroom
Shiitake mushrooms, as the name implies, is a Japanese variety with a meatier and thicker texture and a flowery pattern.

Nowadays, I think names are used interchangeably, and only a fine connoisseur of mushrooms could probably tell or care about the fine differences within the black mushrooms category.

In Chinese cooking, dried mushrooms are favored over fresh, as the drying process really enhances their flavor, similar to dried vs. fresh herbs.

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dried shitake mushrooms on white tabletop

Dried Shrimp
Dried shrimp is one of, if not the most common pantry staples in China. This dried seafood is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It adds great umami flavor and is sometimes even the star flavor of the dish.

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handful of small dried shrimp on white tabletop

Dried Lily Flowers
This Chinese specialty ingredient is also known by several other names, includings lily buds, golden needles, 金針 jīn zhēn (in Mandarin) or gum zhen (in Cantonese).

Lily buds have a slight fruity, floral scent and are used in a variety of traditional Chinese dishes. These are dried, so they need to be soaked prior to cooking. I use them to make Hot and Sour Soup.

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dried lily flowers on white tabletop