A spice guide to the hottest food in Shanghai

Here are 5 spices that encapsulate some of the best Chinese dishes and where to eat them.

By Coquina Restrepo

China is a land full of flavor. You could spend your whole life exploring all the different tastes of each regional cuisine and you still wouldn't have enough time to try everything. The most essential ingredient to all the flavors of China can be boiled down (and together) to this: Spice. Whether you’re a chef who’s interested in exploring new flavors or an adventurous foodie, having a spice guide to Chinese cuisine is essential!

Photograph: Pratiksha Mohanty via Unsplash

Big eaters know that mixing and matching different spices is a dangerous game, one that only the most skilled chefs continuously succeed at. But what spices are the most essential to the Chinese flavor? And what exactly do they taste like? We’ve selected the five best spices to encapsulate some of the best Chinese dishes and located where to eat them. From mild to flaming hot spicy, you can explore your heat tolerance level and discover a whole new version of local cuisine all in Shanghai through our Spice Journey!

This spice is probably the most essential Shanghai flavor you could ever find. From Shanghai sesame noodles to sesame filling, this sweet and fragrant spice is basically a part of every meal. Sesame might not seem like more of a nut than a spice, but when it’s ground down into a powder, it becomes an essential flavor enhancer to an entire dish!

Photograph: HengYao Tang via Unsplash

Spice Level: 🌶

What to eat: Ma Jiang Mian 麻酱面 (Sesame Noodles)

Where to try: Wei Xiang Zhai 味香斋, 14 Yandang Lu

Photograph: Wei Xiang Zhai via @shanghaisights on Instagram

Star Anise (Ba Jiao / 八角) is a native spice to southern China and has been used in Chinese cuisine for centuries. Most commonly found in the Sichuan region, star anise has been a popular spice for its complex flavor, light heat and medicinal properties. It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat digestive problems and heat up the body to restore its natural Qi balance.

Photograph: Hugo Aitken via Unsplash

Star anise has a very sweet taste similar to licorice with a tangy-spice-like edge. It gives food a sweeter balance and brings out the savory quality of most meats. This spice is commonly used in things like soups, sauces and dips for roast meat and chicken. It is strong in a moderate amount and brings out the flavor of a dish without burning your mouth.

Spice Level: 🌶🌶

What to eat: Hong Shao Rou 红烧肉 (Red Braised Pork Belly)

Where to try: Fu 1088, 375 Zhenning Lu

Photograph: Fu 1088 via Chope

Cardamom (Xiao Dou Kou / 小豆蔻) is a mix of sweet and bitter taste, its strong flavor can easily overpower a dish which makes it a very good ingredient to use in strong-flavored, hearty dishes (red meat) instead of light dishes (fish). It has an almost nutty scent and gives dishes a bittersweet balance, not spicy with heat but very intense flavor notes.

Photograph: Rens D via Unsplash

Cardamom is often used in Chinese cuisine for its medicinal benefits. In TCM, cardamom promotes blood circulation and balances your Qi. It’s also good for warming your body and keeping a healthy hot-cold balance.

Spice Level: 🌶🌶🌶

What to eat: Beef Pho

Where to try: Pho To Shop by Cyclo (Wuding Lu), 974 Wuding Lu

Photograph: Beef Pho (Pho To Shop by Cyclo) via Dianping

Cumin (Zi Ran / 孜然) is a strong spice that adds a lot of fragrance and flavor to a dish while giving it a little burn! Cumin is a traditional spice from the Middle East that has many health benefits, from immune system boosting powers to mood brightening effects thanks to its high antioxidants content and stimulant effects. The spice is high in both vitamins and essential oils, which makes every dish both delicious and great for your health!

Photograph: Tamara Gak via Unsplash

Cumin is a great flavor enhancer like salt in that it brings out the savory elements in a dish but adds a slightly smoky scent to it. The spicy layer comes from an earthy and sharp flavor profile, which makes it more savory rather than spicy. The strong peppery smell of cumin doesn’t overpower the taste of the meat and instead adds a layer of heat to it. It’s great with any kind of meat and can be used in dry dishes, soups or even oily food.

Photograph: Avraami Barri via Pexels

Spice Level: 🌶🌶🌶🌶

What to eat: Yang Rou Chuan 羊肉串 (Lamb Skewer)

Where to try: Sapar Uyghur Restaurant 新疆伊宁远征餐厅, 191 Wulumuqi Bei Lu

Photograph: Nicolas Houdayer via Unsplash

Probably one of China’s most notorious spices, Sichuan Peppercorn (Hua Jiao / 花椒) is the iconic spice of Southern Asia and almost all Sichuan cuisine. The ‘mala effect’ that comes from this spice is its mouth-numbing burn that is so addictive! Its flavor is a balance of sweet and savory that is almost instantly forgotten once the burn sets in. But it burns so good!

Photograph: Peijia Li via Unsplash

What’s really surprising about this spice is the layers of flavor. It starts with a robust, almost sweet taste then slowly matures into a flowery flavor and then develops its mouth-numbing heat. Unlike most spices that are overtly peppery or nutty, Sichuan peppercorns balance its heat with a sweetness that doesn’t overpower the dish!

Spice Level: 🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶

What to eat: Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐, Shui Zhu Yu 水煮鱼 (Sichuan Boiled Fish)

Where to try: Sichuan Citizen 龙门阵茶屋川菜馆, Second Floor, 378 Wukang Lu

Photograph: Shui Zhu Yu (Sichuan Citizen) via Chope

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