One of the celebrated flavors most associated with Chinese cuisine is provided by the warm and aromatic five spice powder mixture. Many people think “sweet and sour” when Chinese food gets mentioned, but I’m not a huge fan of tangy sour vinegar, even if it is perfectly balanced with sugar.
For me, great Chinese food is colorful, healthy, stir-fried to retain just a little crunch, and then spiced with chilies and five spice powder, all finished with soy sauce and a drizzle of sesame oil. Delicious!
Chinese Five Spice Powder Ingredients – The Magical Formula
As with practically all things in cookery, there are many variations on 5-spice powder, but they all aim to find a balance between Yin and Yang, the two opposing forces which dominate Chinese philosophical thinking. One thing all formulas have, however, is the pungent and warming scent of aniseed, providing a wonderful licorice taste.
The main spice which delivers this signature flavor is star anise. The aniseed taste is further backed up by the use of fennel seed in the most common five spice recipes. Hot spiciness is provided by Szechuan peppercorns, and the flavors and aromas deepened and balanced with potent cloves and cassia (or its relative cinnamon).
Other variations omit fennel seed, opting for a mixture containing star anise and anise seed, along with ginger powder. And there are further examples which retain fennel, but substitute the cloves for ginger powder.
The relative quantities of each ingredient need not be equal, so if you are an experimenter, it is nice to play around with the quantities to invent a powder which has all the flavor notes you find preferable.
Chinese Five Spice Recipe
Here’s a simple recipe for making your own five spice powder:
- Star Anise – 7 full stars (about 2 tbsp when powdered)
- Fennel Seed – 3 tsp whole seed
- Cinnamon – 2 sticks each 3 inches long
- Cloves – 0.5 tsp whole buds
- Mixed Peppercorns – 1 tsp whole (incl. black, white, pink and green peppercorns plus pimentos)
If you are going to make homemade five spice mix to use immediately, it is worth dry-frying the spices in a pan to release the aromatic oils. Then cool them down and grind into a powder. But if you are going to store the powder for a while, then just do the grinding without the frying – otherwise you are just cooking away all those lovely volatile oils and they’ll be lost.
You might wish to invest in an electric grinder for making your own special spice mixes. I bought one just for spices, as it’s not really a great idea to use the same one for coffee, because some of these spices have highly intense flavors.
If you don’t mind spending the time and you have strong arms, you can also do your grinding in a pestle and mortar. I used to use a small wooden one, but larger stone ones are probably great for this.
Where To Buy Ready Made Five Spice Powder
Most larger stores will sell it these days, usually made by one of the main spice companies. So in the UK I use the Schwartz and Bart brands. The American Amazon site has Frontier and Dynasty brands available.
What I have found invariably is that the commercially available mixtures have extra ingredients. This is a good thing. It means you can see what else you can experiment with.
For example, the initial aroma of Schwartz brand 5-spice is of onion and garlic powders. Before I ever made my own homemade powder, I’d have sworn the main ingredient was star anise!
A quick look at the commercial ingredients shows that sugar and salt play a large role in the store bought versions. Again, this is not a bad thing necessarily.
It means you can adjust your recipes; for example, if the recipe calls for the five spice powder and also some salt, you can safely omit adding the salt – there’s already some in the five spice.
Five Spice Powder Recipe Ideas
Whether you make your own or buy it ready made from the store, you are probably thinking what you can use this delicious spice mixture for. As I mentioned above, I like to sprinkle in a teaspoon or two when I am stir-frying meat or vegetable recipes to give them a sweet spicy flavor.
I have even tried rubbing it into chicken wings before baking in the oven. It really is fun to cook up a batch of hot wings using different powders, so you get a nice variety of flavors during the meal. For example, I have made Chinese five spice wings, Cajun spice wings and also Thai seven spice wings.
If you want to heat things up, make up a hot chili mixture with 1 part hot sauce and 1 part melted butter, and baste the spice-coated chicken wings in this 5 minutes before the end of cooking. Amazing flavors can be found by playing with your food!
Let me know what you can come up with using this exotic seasoning down in the comments section.