Chinese five spice powder is a unique seasoning. While many seasonings usually consist of themselves (sugar is sugar, salt is salt, for example), the powder consisted of five or more ingredients.
Have you ever heard five-spice powder before? If you haven’t, don’t worry. You will get to know more about it soon. Just read on.
The Chinese Tale of Five-spice Powder
No one knows the exact origin of this unique seasoning.
Some thought it was an attempt by the ancient China people to create a ‘wonder powder’ containing five elements. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements exist in the body. If these elements are unbalanced, disease occurs. The powder may be meant to balance these elements.
As for the name, some speculated that was because the powder usually consists of five spices, so it is called five-spice powder.
However, this is not always true. In some cases, the powder is made of more than five ingredients. More likely than not, the ‘five’ in the name refers to the five elements that the powder is supposed to contain.
Five-spice powder is a ‘flexible’ seasoning. It can be used in many ways. For example, since it is spicy and sweet, it can be used to season poultry and meats. Or, since the powder is also aromatic, it can be used for used for savory dishes, spice rubs, and even desserts.
What Spices Are Inside the Blend?
Five of the most commonly used spices for the powder are cinnamon, Sichuan (or Szechuan) peppercorn, star anise, fennel seed, and cloves. There are also substitutes for these ingredients, which we will tell you shortly.
The key is to blend together all five tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, pungent, and salty. Among these five, Szechuan peppercorns is the most difficult to find. If you want to make your own five-spice powder, you may be able to find it in spice stores, Asian markets, Chinese herb shops, or purchase it online. Or, if you can’t find it, you can always substitute it with other spices.
Making Your Own Wonder Powder at Home
You can always buy a ready-made five-spice powder. However, making your own powder would be better as the flavor will be fresher. When they are whole, spices stay fresh longer. After being ground, their freshness will be released, which is why a freshly made powder is fresher than a ready-made one.
Here’s how you make a Chinese spice powder:
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon of ground fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon of ground Chinese cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons of Sichuan peppercorns
- 5 to 6 pieces of star anise
- A wok or dry skillet
- A blender, spice grinder or pepper mill
- A strainer
- An airtight container
- First, roast the Sichuan peppercorns. You can use a wok or dry skillet to roast it. Shake the wok over low to medium heat for about 3 minutes or until the aroma is released.
- Grind the roasted Sichuan peppercorns and all of the star anise in a blender, spice grinder, or pepper mill.
- Pass the mixture through a strainer to ensure that the mixture has an even consistency.
- Mix in the ground fennel seeds, ground Chinese cinnamon, and ground cloves inside the blender.
- Return the Sichuan peppercorns and star anise mixture to the blender.
- Grind all of the ingredients until they have a very fine texture.
- Put the powder inside an airtight container. Keep it in a cool space.
Chinese Five Spice’s Substitute
Although Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, fennel seed, and cloves are common ingredients of five-spice powder, the most important thing about the Chinese five spice powder is that the seasoning contains all the five flavors, which are sweet, bitter, sour, pungent, and salty.
In other words, you can always use other spices than the most common ones to represent these flavors. Let’s say you want to create your own five-spice powder. What if you don’t have some of the ingredients?
You can still make the powder even if you don’t have the commonly used ingredients. Cloves, cinnamon, and anise are very common ingredients and thus, will be readily available.
What about the others? Well, just substitute them. Sichuan peppercorns can be difficult to find. If you don’t have Sichuan peppercorns, you can substitute it with black pepper or ginger.
Unlike the other ingredients, the peppercorns provide a sensation rather than taste. The peppercorns provide a spicy and numbing sensation. Black pepper or ginger can provide the spiciness of the peppercorns, although the sensation is not the same.
As for fennel seeds, you can substitute it with licorice. Licorice and fennel seeds have similar taste. Not only that, but both are also able to provide a distinctive flavor to the powder. Due to these similarities, licorice is a good substitute for fennel seeds in case you don’t have fennel seeds.
When to Use the Chinese Powder Mix
The five-spice powder is a common seasoning for Chinese cuisine.
But, is the powder limited to season Chinese cuisine only?
Of course not. In fact, it works surprisingly well for many other dishes. Dishes with meat such as roasted chicken tastes way more delicious with the powder. So does cooked vegetables like glazed carrots and Brussels sprouts.
Due to its flavors, there are many ways to use five-spice powder. For instance, the powder can be used to add a spicy flavor to poultry, fish, or meat marinades or dry rubs. Also, this wonder powder works especially well with pork. It works great for roasted chicken, too.
The only thing needed is to rub the powder onto the meat. Chinese five spice works best if the dish is cooked slowly. Proper roasting techniques are also needed if the dish is roasted.
With slow cooking and proper roasting techniques, meats and vegetables of a dish will be able to absorb the powder’s flavors properly. When the flavors are absorbed properly, the dish will have an exotic, delightful taste.
Although the powder can bring the taste you like, keep in mind not to use too much of it. Five-spice is one strong seasoning. Using them moderately will be more than enough. If used too much, it won’t bring the intended flavor. Worse, it may even ruin the dish’s flavor.
Salmon with Leeks in Parchment – Bonus Recipe
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1 leek, cut in half and thinly sliced, about 1 cup
- 1 1/4 teaspoons of fennel seeds, whole
- 1 1/2 inch of cinnamon stick
- 2 cloves, whole
- 6 Sichuan peppercorns, whole
- 6 ounces of skinless salmon fillets
- Start by preheating the oven to 425°C.
- Next, mix fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon stick in a skillet. Use medium heat. Let it cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Place the toasted spices inside a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder, in case you don’t have a spice grinder). Grind the spices until they have a fine texture.
- Cut 4 (or about 12 inches) squares of parchment paper. Put a salmon fillet in the center of each square. Sprinkle the spice mixture and salt on top of the fillets. Be sure to sprinkle them evenly.
- Top each of the fillets with leeks.
- Fold the parchment paper. Fold the edges to seal it.
- Put these packets on a baking sheet. Bake them at 425 degrees until they turn light brown and puffy, about 20 minutes.
- Place the baked packets on plates. Cut them open.
- Serve it while sizzling hot.
5 Spice Powder Tips
- Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, fennel seed, and cloves are the common ingredients of the five-spice powder.
However, they are not a must. There are substitute ingredients like we have mentioned above. If you don’t have any of the common ingredients, you can always use substitutes. The key is to present the five flavors, whatever the spices may be.
- Five-spice powder is a strong seasoning. There is no need to use a lot of them in a dish.
Unlike many seasonings which you can add them to your liking, the powder is best used moderately. Too much of the powder will ruin the taste of the dish rather than enhancing it. This applies to both ready-made and homemade powder.
- When you make your own five-spice powder, you don’t have to use the spices in equal amounts we mentioned above.
Rather, you can do some experiments by adding or reducing some of the spices to your flavor. There is no strict rule to follow. There are only general rules.
Feel free to do use different proportions to create the powder.
- The five-spice powder is a ‘flexible’ seasoning.
While it is commonly found in Chinese cuisine, the powder can also be used for many other dishes and desserts.
From roasted meat, fried rice, meatballs, marinade, dry rubs, soups, to spicy cakes and cookies. Since the powder is flexible, you will have many ways to experiment with it.
- The five-spice powder works great if it has time to be absorbed into the meat and/or vegetables.
As such, incorporating the powder in a marinade brings the best result. Other methods, such as slow cooking and roast techniques, can also be used to ensure absorption albeit they are not as effective as a marinade.