History Of Spices In China

Chinese food is loved across the world for its unique flavors, spicy and aromatic sauces, and its robust use of spices. Chinese cuisine uses more than 3,000 different spices. These spices have been used since ancient times, adding new tastes and textures over the centuries, and blending with new ingredients to create a cuisine that is ever evolving.   

The Yunnan and Sichuan provinces are the main hubs for many Asian herbs, spices, and vegetable varieties that have contributed significantly to the history of Chinese spices. Different regions within China have also developed their own unique spice combinations. 

Chinese spice blend is typically made of five spices: cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. These five components are believed to represent the five classical flavors of traditional Chinese cuisine: salty, bitter, aromatic, sweet, and sour. Chinese culture believes this combination is “a balancing act on the tongue”. The five-spice blend is the Chinese equivalent of India’s garam masala, especially in terms of usage and ubiquity. Various blends of these spices may vary from region to region in China as some areas may use Saigon cinnamon and orange peel for a fruitier flavor while others may use white pepper, anise seed, nutmeg, or ginger to make the spice blend. Traditional Chinese medicine also uses the five spice powder as a remedy for indigestion.

Chinese spices are fruits that are harvested just before they are ripe. This ensures the highest level of piquancy, and the flavor of the spice is not irrevocably changed by the process of being picked, dried and then ground. Chinese spices can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. They can also be used as a flavor base in drinks or as a garnish.

Chinese herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years. In fact, some of these herbs are thought to be as old as the mountains themselves. For example, the Dragonwell tea plant was discovered over 5000 years ago on the slopes of the Himalaya mountains in Tibet. This plant was then cultivated and used for centuries in Yunnan and Sichuan as a source of medicinal herbs. Chinese herbs and spices were in great demand in the ancient societies of India and China. They were also traded along the Silk Road and were thought of as more valuable than gold. China also imported spices via the silk route. In earlier times, spices could only be grown in the in the southern regions of China (most of China does not have tropical climate), so older empires imported spices from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India etc.  Some Chinese herbs are believed to be medicinal, while others are said to have been introduced by emissaries or merchants. Some Chinese herbs are even thought to have been brought to China by mythical beings, such as the ancient Bird King and the White Snake Goddess. 

Chili is now synonymous with Chinese food. One Chinese adage goes something like this: “The Sichuanese are not afraid of hot chilies. No degree of heat will frighten off the people of Guizhou. But those Hunanese are terrified of food that isn’t hot!” However, the chili is not native to China, only Sichuan pepper is. Chili was introduced to China by the Portuguese in the 1570s. Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse Tung in the old spelling), the controversial figure who laid the foundation for modern China, praised the chili on several occasions. Two of his best chili-related pronouncements are: ‘Without chili peppers there would be no revolution’; and ‘If you are even afraid of chilies in your bowl, how will you dare to attack your enemies?’ 

Chinese herbs are impressive in their versatility, and different cultures throughout China’s long history have used these herbs in myriad ways, from medicine to seasoning in savory dishes. Chinese herbs are also used as flavor boosters in wine. In fact, you’ll find sprinklings of all kinds of herbs and spices in every type of dish across this vast nation, not unlike the way Indian way of using spices in as many permutations as possible. Many of these herbs and spices can be used raw in salads or as a garnish on savory dishes. 

They are also used as a flavor booster in stir-fries or when making soups. Some of the most common herbs used in cooking include ginger, garlic, star anise, and lemongrass. Chinese herbs are also used to make a herbal wine called “grape wine” or “wormwood wine”. Herbs are often used to flavor such wines to give them a more pungent feel.

Herbs and spices are also popular for their various health benefits. For example, ginger helps with digestion by increasing the secretion of gastric fluids in the stomach and also lowers the intake of glucose, proteins, fats, and cholesterol in the blood. Cinnamon helps with blood sugar regulation by increasing the secretion of insulin. Black pepper has antioxidant properties that help to prevent cancer and improve blood pressure. Most of these herbs and spices are also rich in other important nutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamins A, C, and E, as well as fibre. Herbs and spices are used in many different forms across China, whether as dried herbs and spices, vinegars, or syrups.