26 Essential Asian Spices

Spread the love

Get ready to explore the exotic Asian spices list! It is possible to recreate those authentic tastes you experienced during your travels at home. Plus recipe for popular mixed spices!

spices from asia

I understand that getting these essential Asian spices in your area might be a bit challenging.

And once you have them, how do you keep them fresh? Don’t worry, I will give you some tips and tricks!

Fortunately, some Asian spices can be easily found in the US nowadays, and there are dried alternatives that taste just as wonderful as their fresh ones.

So, let’s dive into the world of spices and discover the must-haves in your kitchen. In case you can’t find a specific spice in your area, I’ll also list down suitable substitutes.

1. Red Shallots (Bawang Merah)

Shallots are used in almost every traditional dish in Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. This is the one that distinctly gives the Asian flavor you can’t find in other dishes. In fact, it is one of the most used spices from Asia!

Almost every dish in Indonesia use red shallots.

The comparison of shallots and garlic used in a recipe is usually 2 to 1. This combination creates a delightful sensation. And when you add other oriental spices, other distinctive flavour will come out.

Keep red shallots in a dry room on a tray. Put a piece of kitchen towel underneath or use a tray with small holes for air to go through.

red shallots
Red shallots

If you can’t find fresh shallots in your area, you can use yellow onion, leeks, or red onion powder as substitute.

Try your best getting fresh red shallots if you want to cook any Asian recipe that has red shallots in it, because the result will be more delicious than using the subtstitutes.

2. Garlic (Bawang Putih)

This staple ingredient in many cuisines is relatively easy to find. Even if it is difficult to find a fresh one, you can use granulated garlic or garlic powder instead.

Granulated garlic has stronger flavour than garlic powder which is finely ground. To give you an idea, ¼ tsp of granulated garlic is equal to 1 clove of fresh garlic.

fresh garlic

I don’t really like to keep garlic powder as it tends to clump hard plus the color is so unnaturally white, whiter than the fresh garlic itself. 

Some recipes will need garlic powder, in which you can use granulated garlic instead.

granulated garlic

3. Ginger (Jahe)

Fresh ginger is easy to find in the grocery store and easy to grow at home. The only downside is that you need to peel the skin first.

Don’t worry. It is very easy to peel the skin. You can just use the edge of a spoon or knife and just grate it to scrape off the skin. 

garlic spices from asia

Ginger powder is also easy to find in grocery store. You can use ginger powder instead of the fresh one and still get the same flavor.

ginger

4. Galangal (Lengkuas or Laos)

Galangal is also a ginger family. Galangal is spicier and has sharper flavour than ginger. It is closely related to ginger and turmeric. They look almost similar. The skin color is a little bit pinky red.

When using fresh galangal in cooking, crush it first with a cleaver. The robust flavor will come out stronger when crushed.

galangal
Ginger at the left side and galangal at the right side

Remove the galangal after cooking, as it is not to be consumed.

Recipes that use galangal and other asian food spices are Chicken Curry, Chicken Rendang and Jakarta Beef Stew (Soto Betawi).

5. Bay Leaf (Daun Salam)

In Asia, most dishes use bay leaf to help tenderize the meat and to give it a delightful aroma. Remove the leaves after the cooking is done, as it is not to be consumed.

bay leaf
Fresh bay leaf

There is fresh bay leaf and dried bay leaf. They both give out the same aroma when cooked. So you can choose the dried ones if the fresh ones are not available in your area.

bay leaf spices from asia
Dried bay leaf

6. Turmeric (Kunyit)

turmeric spices from asia

Turmeric looks almost like ginger and galangal. It is also known as curcumin. It is orange brown on the outside. It has fewer branches on the body part.

The downside of fresh turmeric is that it stains the clothes and hands easily. Use gloves when processing the fresh turmeric with your hands.

turmeric

If you break it into two, it gives out yellow orange and can stain your hands or clothes. The color will go away gradually with soap but not instantly.

Be very careful when peeling the fresh turmeric, because once it stains your clothes, your clothes will not go back to its original color. Even if you use the strongest bleach.

It is more practical to use turmeric ground than the fresh one. It won’t affect the taste. But remember, you still have to be careful not to stain your clothes.

Turmeric has lots of health benefits. It is used as potent traditional beverage in Indonesia that has anti-cancer and anti-aging properties.

Indonesian Chicken Curry and Chicken Rendang use turmeric in the recipe and also many other recipes.

7. Lemongrass (Sereh)

Nearly every traditional Asian food recipes use lemongrass. It gives out aromatic flavour and adds sweet citrusy smell to brighten up the dish.

lemongrass spices from asia

You need to chop or pound fresh lemongrass stalk before cooking, it brings out more flavor.

If you can’t find fresh lemongrass, you can use dried lemongrass or lemongrass powder. It gives out the same freshness and delight.

lemongrass

Lemongrass gives out delightful aroma in cooking and also in fresh beverage like Lemongrass Pandan Tea.

8. Candlenut (Kemiri)

Candlenut looks almost like macadamia nuts. The texture is harder than macadamia nut. If you can’t find candlenut in your area, you can substitute candlenut with macadamia nut because the taste is also almost similar.

spices from asia candlenut

If you happen to see candlenut during your trip to Asia, you can buy some and keep it dry in the fridge for quite some time.

Candlenut ground is also available nowadays if you don’t want to use macadamia nuts as substitute.

People use candlenuts to make the broth thicker and creamier and a little bit oilier. It has nutty flavor and a little bit of bitterness that vapors away while cooking.

candlenut
Candlenut

One important tip to use candlenut in cooking: toast it on a pan without oil, until you can see some burnt edges. It will be more fragrant after toasted.

9. Cumin Seeds (Jinten)

Cumin seeds or cumin ground is used in cooking in a lot of Asian countries. It has very strong flavour and used mostly in curry, rendang, and strong flavor dish. Most dishes from India, Indonesia, and Malaysia use cumin seeds.

Jinten

This Asian spice called jinten in Indonesian is easy to keep, dried or ground. The seeds are dry and you can just keep it in a closed container.

10. Cloves (Cengkeh)

Cloves has a very strong aromatic flavor. It is the aromatic flower bud from syzygium aromaticum tree. It is originally found in Maluku islands of Indonesia.

Cloves is commonly used as spice, flavor, seasonings, perfume, and in tobacco industry.

cloves

Cloves has a lot of health benefits and has been used in Indonesia as spices in cooking and baking. It can even spice up tea and is used in baking.

cloves spice from asia

Cloves come in dried form and ground form. Nowadays it is easy to find the dried and ground form. It is easy to store and can be kept for quite a long time.

11. Star Anise (Pekak)

This beautiful shape of anise makes it very distinguishable. It gives out very strong aromatic fragrance even before cooked. Many dishes from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia use star anise.

Star anise is also one of the five spice powder ingredients. Its distinctive aroma is popular in Indonesian cakes like Thousand Layer Cake or Kue Lapis Legit.

star anise

In China, people use star anise to cook braised pork, braised tofu, and many others to give a fragrant smell to the dish.

Star anise is easy to keep in the kitchen. Just keep the whole form or ground form in a jar in room temperature.

The ground form and the whole form give the same aromatic flavor. Remember to remove the star anise after you finish cooking.

12. Nutmeg (Pala)

Nutmeg has a unique flavor that is irreplaceable by other spices. It is one of the most popular Asian spices used in cooking and baking.

nutmeg whole
Nutmeg whole

If you want to use nutmeg whole, grate it first. You can just put the whole form in a soup recipe and take it out after it is cooked. The taste will be the same, whole form or ground form.

Don’t worry for it is easy to get nutmeg in ground form. It also has a long shelf life as long as you keep it in a dry place.

Pala

13. Cinnamon (Kayu Manis)

Cinnamon comes in cinnamon stick and ground. They both taste the same.

cinnamon stick

Ceylon cinnamon is milder in taste than Cassia cinnamon. Cassia Cinnamon is more commonly found in the market.

If you use the cinnamon stick, remove after cooking.

Try sprinkling some of ceylon cinnamon powder on top of Assam milk tea or latte. It gives a unique aroma and it helps lower the insulin level.

14. Lime Leaves (Daun Jeruk)

There are many kinds of lime leaves but the one used for cooking Asian food is the leaves from kaffir lime. Its shape is unique with 2 leaves in one small branch on top of each other, resembling the number 8.

Tear the leaves first before cooking to extract more aroma from it.

lime leaf spices from asia

The dried form the kafir lime leaves give out  the same aroma as the fresh ones.

15. Coriander Leaves or Cilantro (Daun Ketumbar)

Coriander leaves or cilantro give out strong flavor. Chinese food, Thailand food, Singaporean food, Malaysian food, and Indonesian food use this as garnish and additional flavor.

coriander leaves
Coriander leaves or cilantro

Putting coriander leaves to a dish not only garnish it but also adds a fresh and aromatic sensation to the dish.

16. Cardamom (Kapulaga)

Indian and Indonesian food use cardamom a lot. It is available in dried form so it is easy to store it.

There are many types of cardamom In India, people use green cardamom a lot.

Cardamom looks like a small white flower petal, outside there is a paper-like thin shell with seeds inside. It usually floats in a soup or curry broth.

kapulaga

There are two types of cardamom:

  • Green cardamom also known as white cardamom after bleaching process.
  • Black cardamom which is brown in color and bigger in size than the green cardamom.

cardamom spices from asia

Cardamom has a strong, unique taste and very intense aroma. You need only a little and it will impact the flavour of your food. It can be used in savory dish or even beverage.

17. Kaempferia Galanga (Kencur)

This looks like ginger and galangal but smaller in size. It gives out aromatic smell and flavor. It is even used in Indonesian traditional drink for anti-aging.

People call this spice kencur in Indonesia and cekur in Malaysia. It is also called aromatic ginger, sand ginger, or cutcherry. You can find it in Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, and India. It is one of the easy-to-find Asian spices.

Kencur

Some savoury dish like cireng in Bandung use this spice and drinks such as tonic beverage in Indonesia especially in Java and Bali. It has been used together with ground rice as tonic to release fatigue.

18. Sichuan Pepper (Andaliman)

Andaliman pepper (zanthoxylum acanthopodium) is a kind of Sichuan pepper commonly found in North Sumatra dish. Its distinct aroma and flavor.

It is spicy and citrusy. You will not regret it once you taste it. Indonesian people especially in North Sumatera make spicy andaliman chili sauce.

The andaliman creates a tongue-numbing and tingling sensation that makes you crave for more.

19. Coriander Seeds (Biji Ketumbar)

Coriander seeds are the seeds from cilantro plant. You can see coriander seeds in almost all Indian, Thailand, Indonesian, Malaysia, and Chinese recipes.

Coriander seeds are available in ground form or the whole form, they are both easy to store. Usually the whole form is roasted first to get a stronger effect.

spices from asia

20. Tamarind (Asam Jawa)

Tamarind give sour and fresh taste in food. It comes in paste form and whole fresh form. If you use the fresh form, you have to take it out after cooking.

tamarind

You can blend the tamarind with some hot water and remove the seeds or simply sieve it and add it to the food.

Tamarind combined with palm sugar will make a very refreshing candy treat!

21. Tamarind Slices (Asam Galugur)

This exotic fruit is a different kind of tamarind. It comes from a type of fruit called Garcinia atroviridis, which gives a different taste of sourness to the dish.

asam galugur

It comes in slices form, brown in color, soft in the middle part and a little bit crusty at the skin. You can keep it in the chiller for quite some time.

22. Pangiuem (Keluwak)

Pangium is quite tricky to find. It is actually a kind of fruit. You only use the meat inside which is black and gives the black color to the dish you cook.

A good kind of pangium is quite heavy if you try to weigh it by hand. Try shaking it.

The good ones will make a sound inside. Once you crack it open, you can see the black paste inside which is quite dark.

keluwak

Try it out a little bit before buying it. It should not be bitter in taste.

The only substitute for pangium or keluwak you can get is black truffle. Pangium can be considered one of the unique Asian spices.

23. Turmeric Leaves (Daun Kunyit)

People often use turmeric leaves in cooking curry dish in India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. In India, people use this asian spices as a wrapper for steamed sweet dumpling.

Indonesia and Thailand also use a lot of turmeric leaves in cooking. It gives strong flavor to the dish and pairs well with coconut, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onion, tamarind, shallots.

Fresh leaves will keep up to one week when stored in the refrigerator. Dried Turmeric leaves will keep for several months when stored in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dry, and dark place.

spices from asia
Turmeric leaves

24. Shrimp Paste (Terasi)

Shrimp paste is fermented shrimp used as condiment. The main ingredient is finely ground shrimp fermented with salt for several weeks.

Asian people use shrimp paste in so many curries, sauces, chow ho fun, and sambal (chilli sauce) in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and South China.

Shrimp paste comes in dried form and wet jam-like form. Dried form comes in block or granulated.

I like to keep the dried form, even though the fragrance does not come out strong while still dry, it is very strong when cooked.

Shrimp paste gives the umami flavour to the dish. Some people love shrimp paste they want to have it in almost every dish possible, some can’t even stand the strong smell from it.

25. Fennel Seeds (Adas)

Fennel seeds look similar to cumin seeds, the color is greener. They have a warm, sweet aroma and are usually mixed to make five spice powder.

Curry dish in Indonesia, Malaysia, and India use fennel seeds for its unique aroma.

26. Dried Chilli

I think dried chilli is available in all grocery stores. It is easy to find it in spices group. Be careful in using dried chilli in your cooking. The dish can be very spicy.

dried chilli

Many dishes from China, India, Indonesia use dried chilli. It adds up spiciness to the next level.

Now that you understand the basic spices from Asia, one last thing you need to know is the mixed spices. If you mix some spices, it can step up to a different level of flavor.

Mixed Spices

Other than the individual Asian spices list, I would like to add the mixed Asian spices commonly used in cooking and baking in Asia. They are easy to get in grocery store.

1. Five Spice Powder (Bumbu Ngo Hiong)

Five spice powder is made of 5 different strong Asian spices. Mostly they are cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, and cloves. The fifth ingredient can be either ginger, nutmeg, or sichuan peppercorn.

When you make roasted crispy pork belly or barbecued pork, you will need five spice powder.

char siu
Barbecued pork (char siu)

roast pork
Roast pork belly

If you can’t find the five spice powder in the grocery store, don’t worry, you can make it yourself. This simple recipe will give you a nice five spice powder to keep at home.

2. Spekoek Powder (Bumbu Spekuk)

This is a very fragrant mixed spices. It can be made easily. Some cookies and cakes in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore use the spekkoek powder for its delightful aroma.

It is made from cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves. It gives out unique flavor to the cookies and cakes. Here is a spekkoek powder recipe you can make at home.

Supposed you don’t have the ingredients to make spekkoek powder, pumpkin pie spice and speculoos which consists of cinnamon, white pepper, ground anise, and ground ginger can replace it.

indonesian layer cake

Dutch Ontbijtkoek Cake and Indonesian Lapis Legit use spekkoek powder and these cakes are famous for the fragrant aromatic flavor from the Asian spices.

Conclusion

Now you know which Asian spices you need to have in your kitchen in order to cook some exotic dishes. Keep the dry ones and buy small amounts.

If you think that the Asian spices list mentioned here are not enough, please leave a comment below and let me know so I can update it. Thank you!

Other articles related to Asian food:

Leave a Comment