If you’ve ever been cooking and wanted to punch up your dinner with a unique flavor that’s balanced but defined, you should try adding Chinese five spice! What exactly is this traditional Chinese spice blend? Well, the mix is based on the traditional five Chinese elements of fire, water, wood, earth, and metal. In a sense, the balance of the five spices is meant to imitate the balance of the elements. Fascinatingly, the five spices not only recreate the five elements, but also the five tastes of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Truly, this is a blend of balance, though each taste has the opportunity to shine.
So, what exactly is Chinese five spice? It’s a combination of star anise, cloves, fennel, cinnamon, and peppercorns. While you can buy them premixed in the store, you can easily make it at home. The basic blend is equal parts cinnamon (Chinese cinnamon if you have it), star anise, peppercorns (Sichuan peppercorns if available); double the fennel seeds; and a third of cloves. So, if you had one tablespoon each of cinnamon, star anise (or the whole equivalent to a ground tablespoon), and peppercorns, you’d want two tablespoons of fennel seeds and one-third tablespoon of cloves. It also adds a nice element of flavor if you lightly toast the ingredients before grinding them in a spice grinder or blender.
OK, so you have fresh Chinese five spice. Have you tasted it? You’ll find it has a fairly strong flavor that is both sweet and warm. What really sets five spice apart from other warm, but sweet, spice blends is the star anise, which brings a strong licorice taste. The fennel seeds also have a slight licorice flavor, but the anise takes center stage. While licorice isn’t everyone’s favorite flavor, it can add a unique aspect to whatever dish you’re adding it to.
The best way to utilize five spice in your cooking is strategically, and by that we mean use it sparingly in individual dishes. Chinese five spice is strong, so you don’t need to use a lot to know it’s there. In fact, if you do use a lot of it to season a dish, it could easily overpower the rest of flavors. That said, it’s an extremely popular seasoning in many Asian cuisines, and it’s not uncommon for it to be used sparingly in many dishes. The important lesson here is to make sure it’s balanced with the other flavors, tasting as you cook and adjusting.
In terms of the actual cooking techniques, five spice can be used like any powdered spice mix. You can add it to a brine or marinade to season meat or vegetables before cooking. It can be added to a soup or stew to develop complex flavors, and it can be used as a spice rub for meat. Some people even add a little bit to salt for five spice-seasoned salt, which can make a nice table seasoning in many dishes. There aren’t many ways you can misuse five spice, as long as you follow the golden rule: less is more.
While you can use five spice with just about anything (vegetables, soups, and noodles aren’t uncommon), it’s perhaps best used to season meats, especially fatty meats. A popular dish in Cantonese cuisine that leans heavily on five spice is five flower pork, which is five spice mixed with other ingredients to braise the pork belly until it’s tender and succulent. Five spice is also popular with roast chicken, as the nuance of the spice blend transfers well to the chicken. One thing you’ll notice in almost any recipe that uses five spice is the comparatively small amount that’s used next to the other ingredients. This is a great example of what we said earlier, a little bit goes a long way.
One of the great characteristics of Chinese five spice is it incorporates the five basic tastes, which means it can go well with just about anything if you use it well. If you want to bring out the umami elements, use it with soy sauce in a marinade. If you want the sweeter notes to take center stage, try brown sugar. The adaptability of the blend allows it to play well with other flavors while still imparting its own distinct influence.
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This probably explains why the spice blend has permeated throughout the continent of Asia and beyond. It works well with many of the different ingredients and combinations you could throw at it. Its use isn’t limited to Asian or pan-Asian-inspired cuisine either. Such is the strength of this spice blend. For something you can so easily make at home, the depth of flavor and balance it can bring to almost any dish makes it a useful spice to have around!