Back of the cupboard - Five spice powder

"According to the [Kenwood] survey, there are £240m worth of unused herbs and spices languishing in this country’s (UK) kitchens. And 13% of us confess to owning jars of spices more than four years out of date."

James Ramsden - the Guardian


A week or so ago I used up the last bit of five spice powder from a jar in my pantry. I actually don't like to think about how old it was - possibly decades. They say that you shouldn't keep spices for very long - months to a year is what you usually see, but I have to say that my five spice powder still had its distinctive smell. In an article in The Guardian James Ramsden gives three reasons for having old jars of spices in your cupboard, and I think I fit into all three of them.


Firstly - what he calls the Ottolenghi effect. You see some exotic recipe, or buy a beautiful new cookbook, get inspired to make one of the recipes which includes at least one exotic spice, go and buy it or them, make the dish, put the spice in your cupboard and forget about it. Yes I've done that. And the worst thing about this is that if you transfer your spice to your fancy spice jars, and forget to label them, then you forget what they are as well. Off the top of my head, I think I have, ajowan seeds, cassia bark and chilli flakes that fall into this category. Now the chilli flakes would have got used, but since David has declared his hatred of chilli I no longer know what to do with them. The dried chillies too.


Secondly there is inefficient shopping. I'm guilty of that too. You think you're out of something so you buy some more, only to find that, in fact, you already have at least one new packet waiting to be opened. I have a box on the top shelf of my pantry full of 'reserve' packets and jars of various spices - some of which I am unlikely to use in the near term - like sumac, which I do use, but not very often. I think I have two 'reserve' packets of this, one of them quite large.


And lastly there is lack of imagination. Guilty of that too.


“We’re all too quick to pigeonhole and categorise. Take garam masala – we associate it with Indian food, yet it’s a great all purpose mix that’s delicious in many contexts beyond sprinkling it in our curries. I add it to oatmeal cookies, chuck a pinch in soda bread, add a touch to zesty vinaigrettes, and incorporate it into Cafe de Paris-style butters. The applications are limitless, it’s only our imagination that limits its use.” Arun Kapil

I occasionally inspect my jars, but I can never bring myself to throw things out. I wonder what on earth I can do with these exotic things, but generally do not investigate. Actually I found that that cassia bark - which is decades old as well - is also called Chinese cinnamon and is used in making five spice powder, so maybe it's time has come. It's moment of truth has arrived anyway. If it smells of nothing I shall throw it out and use ordinary cinnamon.


But before I get on to five spice powder itself I will just mention this last somewhat innovative idea from a person (I can't tell whether male or female from the name) called Dhruv Baker and a winner of the British MasterChef.


"The best way of using them up is to blend them. It takes no time to make up a delicious spice paste which you can freeze in ice cube trays. You’ve then got a fantastic base for a curry ready to go. Or you can make a compound butter that also freezes well”. Dhruv Baker - The Guardian


I mean that's brave isn't it? Would you need to know more than I do about what goes with what, or can you just throw things into a mix with happy abandon? It's worth a thought - though probably not to the extent of freezing. Seems to me that's another recipe for forgetting stuff at the back of a cupboard - in this case the freezer.


So five spice powder. Having finished my jar, I vaguely remembered having seen somewhere a recipe for making your own five spice powder, so this time I thought that's what I would do. And Indeed I do have a recipe in a book called The Grammar of Spice that my daughter-in-law gave me a while ago. The book tells you all about the various individual spices, and at the back of the book there are a whole lot of spice mix recipes - including five spice mix. So I will give it a go. Her mix of ingredients is 4 star anise, 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon cloves, 4cm pice of cinnamon or cassia (see - Cassia!) and 2 teaspoons fennel seeds. Which you just grind together. Well maybe you should toast them first, although I don't think everyone did.


There seems to be little variation in the mix of spices although the proportions seem to vary a little. Apparently some mixes include other things like ginger and angelica, but to my mind it wouldn't be a five spice mix then would it? And this appears to be important. There are a few explanations of why five. No it's not the number of ingredients.


"Chinese Five Spice is based on the five elements – fire, water, wood, earth and metal. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements are manifested in different parts of the body and when there are imbalances in these elements, illness can result. For thousands of years,  herbs and spices have been used to restore balance in the body and that is why Chinese five-spice powder came to be."


"Chinese five-spice powder may have originally been used medicinally to balance yin and yang. Five is considered to be a number associated with healing properties. For cooking, the theory is that five-spice encompasses a balance of the main flavors, with interesting interplays between cool (yin) and warm (yang)"


I have also seen it said that it is based on the five different tastes - sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. And five is a lucky number. So I'm going to stick to those basic five spices.


Mind you in the process I shall be adding to my supply of potentially underused spices over and above the five spice powder itself, because I shall have to go and buy some szechuan peppercorns. I'm pretty sure they should have some in the supermarket. They're not peppercorns by the way - botanically speaking that is.


I will try not to make a very large batch. That ingredient list above doesn't sound as if it's going to produce vast amounts, but what am I going to do with it when I have made it, so that it doesn't lurk at the back of the cupboard for another few decades, or until I die and my children have to decide what to do with it?


Currently I just put a small amount into stir fries when I make them. You only seem to need a small amount. It's quite potent - even though it's decades old. Maybe it's one of those things that need to be stored for a long time! But I had a look and there are lots of ideas out there. Gordon Ramsay gave a generic kind of list of what to do with it.


  • Chinese five-spice makes a great spice rub for poultry, pork, and seafood

  • Add Chinese five-spice to the batter for a next-level fried chicken or shrimp.

  • Chinese five-spice is a particularly good match for fattier meats like pork, duck, and goose, where its combined forces work to prevent richer textures from overwhelming the palate.

  • Toss Chinese five-spice with toasted nuts for a goes-with-everything bar snack, or before roasting vegetables like sweet potatoes for a spicy-smoky-sweet spin.

Another quick suggestion I saw was to toast it with salt for a flavoured salt.


But there are lots of specific recipes out there, beyond the traditional Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese ones. Mostly they seemed to be for roasts, usually slow roasts. Like Ottolenghi's Five spice pork belly with peach, raspberry and watercress salad.


Well James Ramsden did refer to the Ottolenghi effect of buying spices you only use once for one specific recipe. You'll also need maple syrup, red wine and port for this one. But then we probably have all of those in our cupboards don't we? Maybe not the port anymore. It used to be big but it's day seems to have passed. I wonder why?

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