Spice Hunting: Five Spice Powder
"If you like cooking hunks of fatty meat—Chinese-style or otherwise—five spice powder should be a staple in your pantry."
One of the things I love about spices is their potential to make foods taste exotic each time you use them, and nothing tastes as pleasantly mysterious to me as five spice powder. By all rights it shouldn't—it's used in plenty of Chinese dishes and is mostly composed of well-known spices. But its presence in foods becomes positively haunting, and it elevates fatty, meaty dishes to mysterious heights. It warms and cools the tongue all at once and enhances meat's richness while providing enough bite to cut through it all. Even if you don't cook much Chinese food, this is a spice worth checking out.
What's in Five Spice Powder?
"Five spice" refers not to the number of spices in it, but to its flavor profile. It's meant to be a seasoning that touches on what the Chinese consider the five principal tastes, though what people will say those tastes are is often dependent on what they put into their five spice powder. Like most well-known spice blends, its individual ingredients and proportions are at the whim of the merchant or manufacturer. But the most typical spices are fairly stable: anise, fennel, cinnamon, clove, and Szechuan peppercorns. Black pepper and/or ground ginger are also fairly common. Some blends contain salt to use as one-step rubs for meats, so check the ingredient label carefully.
You can, of course, make your own five spice powder, as all of these ingredients—even the Szechuan peppercorns nowadays—are easy to obtain. I won't give you a recipe, since personal tastes differ enough that it's worth exploring what proportions work best for you. But if you start with equal amounts of fennel, anise, cinnamon, clove, and Szechuan peppercorn, and add half the amount of ground ginger and black pepper, you'd be well on your way. Add spices you like to taste until you have a blend you're happy with. I like buying it from various merchants who make it in small batches—their blends tell you something about their personality.
Five spice powder is warm and sweet thanks to the cinnamon and anise, but cool and heady because of the fennel and the cloves. The Szechuan peppercorns, black pepper, and/or ground ginger tingle the tongue (each in a different way). The main flavor is anise—if you're not a fan of anise this probably won't change your mind, but the effect on food is so much greater. All of these flavors are perfect compliments to rich meats like pork, beef, and duck. On leaner meat like chicken, or on starches or vegetables, the flavor can easily become overwhelming. Even on the meats it pairs with, a little goes a long way.
How to Use Five Spice Powder
Five spice powder is most at home in traditional Chinese meat preparations, like red-cooking (braising in soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, and spices), stir fries, or roasting. It's essential to my go-to recipe for char siu, the Cantonese-style roast pork that is fatty, sweet, savory, and addictive. Five spice powder works best if it has some time to mingle with the meat, so use it in a marinade for best results.
When you step away from Chinese cooking you can get into some really interesting territory. In baking, it makes an exotic substitute for cinnamon or clove in cookies and spice cakes. In Western meat preparations, it bears a striking resemblance to medieval spice blends heavily reliant on warm spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. A steak marinated and served with a sauce of red wine and five spice powder has an alluring but hard to pin down flavor. It's also a great way to make a personal stamp on a grill or barbecue rub.
When experimenting with bolognese, Heston Blumenthal found that small amounts of anise make browned meats taste meatier. Five spice powder does the same thing, but it also cools and bites to compliment the meat's richness. Though made with simple spices, it's a complex and tantalizing blend that works its magic again and again. If you like cooking hunks of fatty meat—Chinese-style or otherwise—five spice powder should be a staple in your pantry.