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Five spice powder

"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."

Mark Falkowitz - Serious Eats

Having found the elusive Sichuan peppercorns earlier this week, or was it last week?, I finally got around to making my own five spice powder. This was because I finally used up the shop bought powder that I had in my pantry. Heaven knows how old it was. And here's a thing too - one of the ingredients is cinnamon - or more correctly cassia. Which I forgot about, as it happens, and just used some cinnamon stick, but actually I have some cassia bark tucked away at the back on my pantry. It must be decades old, so tonight I shall throw it out.

Five spice powder is that powder that gives a lot of Chinese food its distinctive flavour, and those five flavours come from star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds and the Sichuan peppercorns. It's a very old mixture, so old that nobody really knows who invented it.

"The five flavors of the spices (sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami) refers to the five traditional Chinese elements." Wikipedia

The five elements being water, fire, 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." Feasting at home

There are those that maintain that it is indeed good for all manner of things, and that it is high in anti-oxidants, but recent research has shown that that high anti-oxidant count comes from the cloves. The other four just give flavour.

Every little Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, etc, mother has their own recipe. And there are local variants too whereby things such as mandarin peel and ginger are added. But since it is called five spice powder you would think that you would stick to the original five would you not?

It has travelled far and wide and is available on supermarket shelves around the world. But I really wanted to have a go at making it. The version I made was really simple. I simply had to toast the spices first before grinding them together in my spice grinder. Although I did see some recipes that just ground them all up without toasting them first. Mind you I did find at least one recipe which was rather more complicated and involved grinding just two of the spices, and then sieving them before adding the others. The proportions for my recipe from The Grammar of Spice were 4 star anise, 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon cloves, 4cm piece of cinnamon or cassia, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds.

It is apparently widely used in Hawaii - so widely used that some restaurants have a shaker of it on every table. And you can add it to salt to make a five spice salt.

It's uses are manifold. It is used in everything from stir-fries, roasts, and braises, to cookies and cakes. So I don't think there is one typical recipe I can offer as an example of its use. I tried to find weird and wonderful uses and the nearest I could find to that was Five spice pork rillettes from Mark Diacono, but I'm afraid there is no picture for this.

I tried Heston, who did indeed have a recipe for Five-spiced duck breast, but luscious looking though it is, it's not really all that extraordinary, although the guy from a site called In Search of Heston, lists this one in a Gallery of regrettable failures. Not that his version looked that bad I have to say. This picture is Heston's though.

So I tried to think of our home-grown Asian cooks - Luke Nguyen, Neil Perry, who is not Asian but cooks a lot of Asian food, and Kylie Kwong, who I think had the most typical looking dish - and maybe worth a try some time. It's called Roasted caramel pork with honey, ginger and five spice.

But really there are heaps of recipes out there, or just try adding it to marinades and spice rubs and stir fry sauces.

"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." Mark Falkowitz - Serious Eats.

So try it any way you fancy. Jamie Oliver has even combined it with Mexican food with his Five spice salmon tacos, which sounds really weird but actually looks quite tempting. And then just as I was about to wind up I found that Food 52 had a few different ideas, the main one being for Five-spice French Toast, (shown below), but on the page they had a link to another article with other ideas that included spiced nuts, a streusel cake, popcorn chicken and a caramel sauce. Interesting stuff.

I can't remember when five spice powder started appearing on supermarket shelves and in our kitchens, but it was certainly a very long time ago. Not as long ago as my mother's cooking days though. Now that I've made my own I might try to use it more - as in my marinaded pork tonight. I hope it's Ok - I just raided the pantry for other things to add to the five spice blend - soy sauce, black bean sauce, red wine vinegar, garlic, passata, maple syrup. Too much? We'll see. The pork is somewhere between a boneless chop and schnitzel. It was cheap and fresh looking, and I wanted an easy dinner. With asparagus and broccoli I think. And rice of course.


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