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.