Spice Blends, Some Exotic Aisle: Chinese Five Spice

Chinese Five Spice, like Garam Masala and other blends I’ve covered in this series, can have varying ingredients.

The ironic thing about five spice powder is, it does not have to contain five spices, it could contain more. The “five” actually relates to the elements, or phases, in Wu Xing*, or Chinese zodiac. These are earth, fire, metal, water, and wood.   In Chinese cooking, there are also five flavors–sweet, salty, sour, pungent, and bitter. This blend has it all.

Five spice powder

Fennel seeds (red bowl), cloves (orange bowl), anise seed (yellow bowl), saigon cinnamon (green bowl), ginger (blue bowl). Some varieties include Szechuan (Sichuan) pepper (not pictured).

I think the most aromatic spices in this blend are the subtle licorice scent of anise and fennel and the sweet warmth of the cinnamon (Saigon or Vietnamese smells more aromatic to me than regular cinnamon in the US).

Used In: Roasted chicken, duck, boar and pork dishes in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Malaysia. Beancurd pork and shrimp dumplings (ngo hiang).

Other uses: Spice cake or cookies–especially autumn and winter when warming, hearth-themed foods are the focus; apple and other fruit pies; pumpkin bread; baked or mashed sweet potatoes; beef or lamb stew; marinades and dry rubs; breading for fried meat.

*=The Western world could easily think the Greek four elements and the Chinese five elements are the same thing, or at least pretty close. This is not true.

The Greek four elements–earth, air, fire, water are about material composition. Chinese elements, more aptly called ‘phases’ are agents of change. They are consecutive and dependent on each other in the balance, destructive out of sequence or out of balance. Wood nurtures fire but separates earth,  fire’s ashes make earth but fire melts metal, earth creates metal but parts water, metal carries water but cuts wood, water nurtures wood but kills fire.

Wu Xing shows up throughout Chinese culture, including traditional medicine, feng shui, and the zodiac. If you’ve ever curiously read your horoscope at Chinese new year, each of the twelve animals has five phases, so it takes 60 years to complete a cycle.

This blog discusses the recurring “fives” in Asian culture better than I could.

If you have other ideas for this spice blend, please share in the comments below.

Tip My Toque: Old Bay Seasoning

Here on the coast of South Carolina, it’s the time of year when the shrimp boats are blessed by local ministers. Blessings and prayers are made for a safe season and a bountiful catch. There are also many seafood festivals along the coastline for shrimp and blue crab. [Oyster season is traditionally over until next fall.]

Since it is seafood festival season, I was curious about the story behind Old Bay seasoning.


Old Bay hails from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It was created by Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant, in the early 1940s. It contains allspice, bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, red pepper, and salt. (In recent years, a lower salt variety has been introduced to the product line.)

Old Bay was named for the Old Bay Line, a steamship that made regular trips between Baltimore and Norfolk in the early 20th century.

It’s trademark packaging is a mustard yellow canister or label, with 2 perpendicular royal blue bands on the left side. In the horizontal blue bar, OLD BAY is written in bold white capital letters. Seventy years later, the packaging has a unmistakable look and a vintage quality. Old Bay had consistent branding, long before everyone was talking about the importance of “branding”. And it continues today.

In the Chesapeake area, Old Bay is offered as a condiment in movie theaters, at delis, sandwich franchises, and many restaurants. In other areas, Old Bay is available at any establishment serving fish and shellfish.

While it was designed for seafood, other uses include seasoning popcorn, cooked eggs, potato chips, tater tots, french fries, corn on the cob, and salads.