WHAT IS IT?
What is the fifth element of Five Spice powder? That can change from recipe to recipe. Originally it was a search by Chinese cooks for the perfect blend of sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, and salty. It gradually turned into an aromatic with a little kick. The Big Four are star anise(ba jiao), cloves, fennel seeds, and cinnamon. The fifth element is usually some form of peppercorns. Sichuan (hua jiao) and white peppercorns (bái hú jiāo) are the most common in Asia, but black pepper is used more commonly by cheaper American and European spice makers. Many toss in a bit of cardamom, and the Vietnamese variety can feature a bit of lemongrass powder for that pop, rather than pepper.
Chinese Five Spice is a very broadly used blend with a lot of different applications in your cooking. One of the well-known flavors of China in the Northern Hemisphere imported largely by the early Cantonese migrations to this side of the globe.
The flavor of five spice is extremely aromatic, first and foremost, with a little bit of flavor on the backside with the pepper. It is pretty common to a wide number of Asian food dishes. The powder a blend that’s both warming and slightly spicy.
Five spice powder originated in China, most likely in the Canton province, as the earliest mentions of its use that we can find emanate from there. The unique combination of spices has been used for centuries in Chinese cuisine for both savory and sweet applications. The idea has been adopted by other cultures that use variations of the same spices used in the original five spice recipe.
- Almond cookies
- Chinese spareribs
- Cantonese roast duck
- Vietnamese broiled chicken
- As an aromatic for steamed and fried rice
- Spiced nuts
- Soups and stews
A FEW IMPROVISATIONAL RIFFS:
- A Chinese riff to rice pudding
- Jazz Chef Asian Bacon
- A bit in a Tamago, sweet egg omelette chilled for sushi, rocks a roll.
- A delicate vanilla variation in ice cream
- A little wow for your bao, steamed buns.
- Make your own, and add a little dried mandarin orange peel, as they do in Southern China, or add Vietnamese Cinnamon for a little more aromatic pop.
Like many great spice blends, Five Spice started as a male potency powder. Think of it as ancient Chinese Viagra. Of course, its powers in that department were a bit doubtful, but it smelled and tasted great, so it found its way into the lexicon of Cantonese cooking (ngh heung fan) , and from that port town, to the Mandarin (wu xiang fen) world, and then to most of Asia.
Five Spice probably started as four, as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter are the foundational base of all Chinese cuisine, and much of the rest of the world now, as we up our game in what we cook with. Why five spices, then, and not four or six? It often has more or less, in truth, but the Chinese believe in five: It is a special number. So, as with hundred year eggs, there is a little license in the name.
BUY IT OR MAKE IT?
Get comfortable cooking with it first. You can play with the nature of the blend, though, with a good spice mill and the basic ingredients stored in your personal aromata. SpiceJungle makes a great blend as does Fresh Market. I would avoid most of the supermarket blends. Find the closest Asian or “Oriental” market, if they still use that older, more racist handle to sell stuff. You’ll find a world of cool stuff to play with in an Asian market. Don’t be intimidated. Ask the proprietors if you’re not sure about what something is. They’re usually quite happy to help make a friend, and future sales.
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