Chinese gastronomy is known for its intricate use of spices and aromatics (香料, xiāngliào), which play an essential role in creating the distinct flavors that characterize various regional dishes. Used fresh, dried and ground, spices are a diverse and complex group of ingredients that balance flavors, enhance aromas, provide depth to dishes and, importantly, help deodorize fresh meats and gamey odors. Highly prized spices were also given as gifts for royalty or as offerings to the gods. Their uses often overlap with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) applications, the foundation of which incorporates food as medicine.

While not as famous as the Silk Road, the lucrative spice trade and its routes connected China with the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This network, dating back to the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.E., played a significant role in Chinese cooking and culinary practices. As one of the most important trade commodities, spices flowed from one culture to the next and varieties that were not native to China quickly became introduced that way: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, chilies and more all came from global neighbors.

Background on Chinese Five Spice

Chinese five spice is a simplified traditional spice blend that is a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine. Its distinctive flavor profile combines sweet, savory and aromatic elements. Despite its name, Chinese five spice doesn’t always contain only five spices; rather, it typically includes a combination of several key ingredients that create a well-rounded and balanced flavor. The components of Chinese five spice vary based on regional preferences and personal recipes, but the core spices usually remain consistent:

  • Cassia cinnamon (桂皮, guìpí)
  • Cloves (丁香, dīngxiāng)
  • Fennel seeds (小茴香, xiǎohuíxiāng)
  • Sichuan peppercorns (花椒, huājiāo)
  • Star anise (八角, bājiǎo)
Image source: Zoe Yang

DIY Chinese Five Spice Blend

Chinese five spice is beloved across China, used mainly in braises and stews but also as a rub or marinade for roasted meats. Five spice powder is so popular that it is easy to find even in the West. However, the problem with five spice powder is the same as with any ground spice—it loses its flavor over time, and even more so when it includes Sichuan pepper, which loses its numbing power within a few weeks. (Never buy pre-ground Sichuan pepper!)

So rather than sell it as a powder, we have formulated the perfect 5 Spice blend in whole spices so that you can grind them yourself for wonderfully fresh, robust powder when you want it, without having to purchase five different spices.  

Recently Harvested, Non-Irradiated

Five spice

Classic Chinese Five Spice Dishes

Cassia Bark Cinnamon (桂皮, guìpí)

Cinnamomum cassia, also called Chinese cinnamon, is one of several species of Cinnamomum and is grown widely in southern China. It is not to be confused with Cinnamomum verum, or 肉桂 (ròuguì)—Ceylon cinnamon. These thick, rolled strips of bark have a sweet cinnamon taste.

Cassia bark can be used whole in braises and soup stocks or ground for Chinese five spice (along with star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel and clove). Cassia also finds its way into Sichuan hot pot and dry pot spice mixes.

Cassia Bark

This cassia bark is fresh and relatively soft and can be easily broken by hand into smaller pieces. Our current batch of cassia is rolled quills about 4 inches in length.

Grown in Guangxi Autonomous Region

cassia bark

Chinese Cassia Bark Recipes

Star Anise (八角, bājiǎo)

Star anise, the eight-pointed, beautiful star spice, is native to southwest China (and Vietnam) and is widely used in braises, stews and soup stocks. It is an ingredient of Chinese five spice and finds its way into Sichuan hot pot and dry pot spice mixes.

Star anise flavor is similar to licorice or anise seeds, which have a mild, slightly spicy herbal quality reminiscent of black licorice. Star anise also carries hints of warm spice. Adding too much may result in a subtle bitterness, so resist the urge to dump in more star anise than called for.

spices needed for chinese master stock from the mala market

Star Anise

Premium-grade star anise such as this from Guangxi Province features mostly whole, large stars with high oil content and a fragrance and flavor that puts the supermarket version to shame. Note that Chinese star anise is larger and rougher-textured than some other varieties. 

Chinese Star Anise Recipes

Black Cardamom (草果, cǎoguǒ; tsaoko; thảo quả)

Caoguo, or tsaoko, has gone by various names in English. A member of the ginger family, it has long been called Chinese black cardamom (or red cardamom) because it is similar to Indian black cardamom in looks and taste. But it seems to have been recently reclassified from the Amomum genus of cardamom to the Asian classification of Lanxangia tsaoko. To make matters more confusing, it is also sometimes literally translated as grass fruit in English. 

Whatever you call it, caoguo is delicious! We throw a pod or two of caoguo into almost every long-cooked braise or stew. Use the whole pod, slightly crushed to release the inner flavor. (Some Sichuan chefs use only the empty shell pod.) Or crack open the pods with a cleaver or other heavy implement, extract the seeds from the sticky interior and grind them for use in spice mixes. 

Smoked Yunnan Black Cardamom

This caoguo is grown in Yunnan Province and is one of the most-used spices in Yunnan food. It is also an important component of Sichuan soups and meat braises, and hot pot and dry pot spice mixes.

The big round pods are smoked during the drying process and have an incredible smoky layer on top of the camphor-ish flavor of the inner seeds.

smoked caoguo

Chinese Black Cardamom Dishes

Sand Ginger (沙姜, shājiāng; 山奈, shānnài)

Sand ginger, or shajiang, is in the ginger family of plants and is one of four species of galangal (Kaempferia galangal). Like ginger, sand ginger is a rhizome, and this dried, sliced version has an intense peppery smell and taste with a camphorous overtone.  

Sand ginger’s peppery bite complements the other well-known Chinese spices and can be added to your spice mix for braises, hot pot and chili oil for another distinctive layer of flavor. If your recipe calls for sand ginger powder, simply grind the slices in a spice grinder for a fresh and fragrant powder superior to pre-ground.

chinese spices on plate

New Harvest Yangchun Sand Ginger

Sand ginger is prized for both culinary and medicinal uses. Ours is sourced directly from the southern Guangdong city of Yangchun, which is an important production base of medical herbs for Traditional Chinese Medicine.

sand ginger

Chinese Sand Ginger Recipes

Cumin Seed (孜然, zīrán)

Cumin has long been important in China’s far-west Xinjiang autonomous region, where this cumin seed is grown. Xinjiang’s Turkic Uyghur people, whose food draws from both Middle Eastern traditions and Chinese cuisines, introduced dishes such as cumin lamb  and BBQ skewers (shaokao) to China and the world. Xi’an and other Muslim Chinese areas also make frequent use of cumin.

Cumin has a strong, earthy flavor that pairs well with the fattiness of lamb and the sweetness of potatoes.

Xinjiang Cumin Seed

Experience the allure of Xinjiang cumin seed: a premium cumin grown in the arid climate of northwestern China, known for its rich soil. These conditions produce cumin with a strong, earthy flavor and aroma. Xinjiang cumin’s distinct smoky warmth will elevate your grilled meats, roasted vegetables, savory stews and stir-fries.

This cumin seed is recently harvested, fresh and fragrant.

Xinjiang cumin

Sichuan-Style Shaokao (Chinese BBQ, 烧烤)

Introducing The Mala Market Xinjiang BBQ Shaokao Spice Shaokao (烧烤, shāokǎo), or Chinese barbeque, comes in many forms. The most famous is from the far west region of Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims have perfected cumin-dusted lamb skewers, but other areas of the country have taken Xinjiang BBQ and made it their own. In Sichuan, there is certainly no shortage of…

Xinjiang-Style Shaokao (BBQ) Spice

All of China loves a good skewer of grilled meat or veggie. The most popular shaokao, or Chinese barbeque, comes from the far west region of Xinjiang, where Muslim grillers have perfected cumin-dusted lamb skewers.

This small-batch, handcrafted skao kao spice blend is in the style of Xinjiang, featuring cumin grown in Xinjiang and chiles from Guizhou backed up with plenty of premium Sichuan pepper, sesame, black cardamom and other Chinese spices, along with umami-heavy mushroom powder and just the right amount of salt.

This smoky, spicy, tingly blend is made with The Mala Market’s single-origin spices by Chef Travis Post, who makes a celebrated version for his Plenty of Clouds restaurant in Seattle. 

shao kao spice

Hainan Island Fermented White Pepper

These fermented white peppercorns are a product of Qionghai, on tropical Hainan Island, the famed source of China’s best white pepper.

White peppercorns and black peppercorns are one and the same fruit from the Piper nigrum plant but are processed differently. White pepper is left to ripen on the vine and is then stored in water for a week or so to soften and decompose the outer skin of the fruit. The skins are then rubbed off, and the seed is dried in the sun. This traditional fermentation (which may be bypassed in lieu of faster mechanical or chemical means in cheaper pepper) strips away some of the flavors found in the skin of black pepper and adds a bit of distinctive funk in the process. 

Used widely in Chinese cuisines, white pepper is the pepper of choice in China and a must-have ingredient for Cantonese food.

Cooking and Storage Tips

Dry spices should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from direct sunlight and heat sources (preferably a closed cupboard or pantry). Ensure containers are tightly sealed. Proper sealing helps maintain flavor and quality. No refrigeration necessary.

  • Roast or toast spices before using them to bring out their flavor.
  • Use whole spices for braising and infusing broth or oil.
  • Use ground spices to intensify flavor or create blends. Grind whole spices in a mortar & pestle for a coarse grind or small amounts. Use a dedicated spice grinder or coffee grinder to make fine powders or large batches.

Elevate Your Five Spice With the Whole Chinese Spice Collection

Chinese spice collection

These four spices provide quintessential flavors to Chinese cooking and are used frequently in braises and stews, chili oil, hot pot and beyond. They are all single-origin spices—grown in a village or small growing area in Guangxi, Yunnan or Guangdong—and are used extensively throughout the country. 

Star anise and Chinese cassia are components of traditional Chinese five spice along with Sichuan pepper (and fennel and clove, which we do not sell but are available widely in the U.S.). Though less well known, sand ginger and smoked cao guo, which is also called tsao ko or Chinese black cardamom, are intriguing and appealing to both nose and taste. 

All How to Cook With Chinese Spices