Chinese Five Spice Powder

Chinese 5 spice powder

While it’s commonly believed that it gets it’s name because it contains 5 spices, the number actually refers to the 5 elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In traditional Chinese medicine, these elements manifest themselves in various parts of the human anatomy and imbalances in these elements are said to be the cause of disease.

Various herbs and spices have been used for thousands of years to restore balance to these elements which is how 5 spice powder came into being. Today it’s used in a variety of roasted and braised meat dishes, but it’s probably most recognizable in the west as the main seasoning in Char Siu (Chinese barbecued pork).

I’ve been thinking about making my own 5 spice for some time, but the catalyst that got things going was Todd and Diane from White Rice on Couple sending me some Vietnamese Cinnamon. It’s incredibly fragrant, sweet and spicy and unlike regular cinnamon it’s from the bark of a certain species of Cassia tree.

I’ve seen many blends containing everything from fennel to celery seed, but I had a specific flavour in mind and went about toasting and grinding the spices until I hit the right balance.

While most of the ingredients in the spice blend are widely available and familiar to western chefs, Sichuan pepper is a little less common. Despite its name it actually has no relation to black pepper or chili peppers. Both the leaves and berries are edible and it’s a popular spice in Asia known by many different names. In China it’s known as Huajiao, in Japan it goes by Sansho and in Nepalese it’s called Timur.

Sichuan pepper has a slightly citrusy, pine-like flavor that has a tingly numbing effect on your tongue when eaten fresh or in larger doses. When dried the shiny black seeds inside the brown husks have a distinctly gritty texture like sand, and since the husk is the part with the flavor I strongly recommend you pick out all the black seeds (labour intensive, but worth it).

3 pieces whole star anise
20 cloves
3″ long piece of Vietnamese cinnamon (or other Cassia bark)
1 Tbs Sichuan pepper (husks only, the black seeds are gritty)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp white peppercorns

Toast all the spices either in a hot pan or in a toaster oven being careful not to burn them. You’ll know they’re done when they start giving off a wonderful aroma.

Put the toasted spices in a spice grinder, a blender, or a food processor and blitz until it’s ground into a fine powder.

Pass it through a fine mesh sieve to remove any big pieces and store in an airtight container until you’re ready to use it.

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  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com/ _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    I didn’t know that about the 5 elements!

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver

    I didn’t know that about the 5 elements!

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com/ [eatingclub] vancouver || js

    My sister beat me to it! LOL vis a vis Thanks for the clarification about the 5 elements. Always thought it referred to 5 spices. Have to try making our own five-spice powder: I just sniffed our store-bought one and I didn’t like the smell.

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com [eatingclub] vancouver || js

    My sister beat me to it! LOL vis a vis Thanks for the clarification about the 5 elements. Always thought it referred to 5 spices. Have to try making our own five-spice powder: I just sniffed our store-bought one and I didn’t like the smell.

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com/ Peter

    I love the spice combo(and the background) and it made for a nice seasoning for onion rings.

  • http://www.kalofagas.blogspot.com Peter

    I love the spice combo(and the background) and it made for a nice seasoning for onion rings.

  • http://www.brooklynfarmhouse.com/ Megan

    this is super interesting – i love your food history/anthropology – i think we’re kindred spirits! thanks for your comments on my blog – i’ll def. be following yours!

  • http://www.brooklynfarmhouse.com Megan

    this is super interesting – i love your food history/anthropology – i think we’re kindred spirits! thanks for your comments on my blog – i’ll def. be following yours!

  • http://www.rasamalaysia.com/ Rasa Malaysia

    The most famous 5-spice powder in Penang, Malaysia (which is famous in Malaysia) looks almost dark muave in color. I don’t use 5-spice powder much in my cooking, but when I do, it really enhances the flavor lots. :)

  • http://www.rasamalaysia.com Rasa Malaysia

    The most famous 5-spice powder in Penang, Malaysia (which is famous in Malaysia) looks almost dark muave in color. I don’t use 5-spice powder much in my cooking, but when I do, it really enhances the flavor lots. :)

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com/ Manggy

    I can’t believe it’s actually easier to find Sichuan peppercorns here than it is in the States O_o That’s a first! (I mean, besides tropical fruits ;)
    Wish there was an easy way to husk them, though :/

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com/ Manggy

    I can’t believe it’s actually easier to find Sichuan peppercorns here than it is in the States O_o That’s a first! (I mean, besides tropical fruits ;)
    Wish there was an easy way to husk them, though :/

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    I can’t believe it’s actually easier to find Sichuan peppercorns here than it is in the States O_o That’s a first! (I mean, besides tropical fruits ;)
    Wish there was an easy way to husk them, though :/

  • http://www.souvlakiforthesoul.com/ Peter G

    I honestly had no idea about five spice powder being related to the elements! I think it’s fragrance pairs well especially with sow braised beef ribs!…mmmm

  • http://www.souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    I honestly had no idea about five spice powder being related to the elements! I think it’s fragrance pairs well especially with sow braised beef ribs!…mmmm

  • http://chriseatskyoto.blogspot.com/ Chris

    I dunno, I’d miss that grittiness in Sichuan food, at least. Can’t you just grind really fine and put it through a finer sieve?

    Interestingly, although the Japanese adore sansho, which is dried-ground Sichuan peppercorn, they don’t use the roasted kind, and it’s surprisingly difficult to find. (Rrrrgh!)

  • http://chriseatskyoto.blogspot.com/ Chris

    I dunno, I’d miss that grittiness in Sichuan food, at least. Can’t you just grind really fine and put it through a finer sieve?

    Interestingly, although the Japanese adore sansho, which is dried-ground Sichuan peppercorn, they don’t use the roasted kind, and it’s surprisingly difficult to find. (Rrrrgh!)

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  • http://gagainthekitchen.blogspot.com/ gaga

    I never thought of making my own 5 spice powder, but I have all the ingredients, I might as well! Thanks!

  • http://gagainthekitchen.blogspot.com gaga

    I never thought of making my own 5 spice powder, but I have all the ingredients, I might as well! Thanks!

  • http://www.palatetopen.com/ Jen

    I’ve wondered what spices are in the 5 spice powder…thanks so much for the history and recipe!

  • http://www.palatetopen.com Jen

    I’ve wondered what spices are in the 5 spice powder…thanks so much for the history and recipe!

  • missdk

    I’m totally making this as a xmas present. How much does your recipe make?

  • missdk

    I’m totally making this as a xmas present. How much does your recipe make?

  • http://whiteonricecouple.com/blog White On Rice Couple

    I love the addition of the sichuan peppercorns, Marc. I can really smell that amazing combo of spices you have there!
    I can taste your blend with some braised pork belly already…mmm….

  • http://whiteonricecouple.com/blog White On Rice Couple

    I love the addition of the sichuan peppercorns, Marc. I can really smell that amazing combo of spices you have there!
    I can taste your blend with some braised pork belly already…mmm….

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  • Angela

    Hi, I was wondering how you went about removing the seeds from the peppercorns?

  • Angela

    Hi, I was wondering how you went about removing the seeds from the peppercorns?

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  • http://www.petsnakesonline.com/ Pet Snakes

    Love your writing style and the design of your blog, its very original! Well done, look forward to reading more.

  • http://www.petsnakesonline.com Pet Snakes

    Love your writing style and the design of your blog, its very original! Well done, look forward to reading more.

  • dave

    just enjoying the site and all the great comments..i was looking for chinese five spice recipes..and look forward to the aroma wafting through my apartment sunday afternoon as i take on a pork loin c/w 5 spice a little garlic and fresh ginger..cool site….. thanks…cheers everyone

  • dave

    just enjoying the site and all the great comments..i was looking for chinese five spice recipes..and look forward to the aroma wafting through my apartment sunday afternoon as i take on a pork loin c/w 5 spice a little garlic and fresh ginger..cool site….. thanks…cheers everyone

  • http://www.familyfreshcooking.com/blog/ marla (Family Fresh Cooking)

    I am just about to make a chinese 5 spice chili. Your post was very informative on the origins of this yummy spice blend!

  • http://www.familyfreshcooking.com/blog/ marla (Family Fresh Cooking)

    I am just about to make a chinese 5 spice chili. Your post was very informative on the origins of this yummy spice blend!

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  • Jan

    Very nice recipe! Also kudos on your blog, i like it a lot. But the elemts got me wondering…you say it’s based on the 5 elements and then you name six…

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Nice catch, that was a typo, I put water twice. Thanks!

  • Lazbec11

    If you finely sieve the final ground product, is it necessary to pick out the seeds from the pepper?  I guess the fine mesh sieve isn’t that fine if you’re dealing with ground spices…

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Yea, you still have to pick out the seeds, they’re like little rocks,
      so if you grind it you end up with grit that’s like sand between your
      teeth. Recently I found Sichuan peppercorns at an Indian spice market
      with the seeds already removed, which saves a lot of time.

  • Flavor = finesse

    Being a professional chef that has lived overseas for more than five years, I think adding cumin to a five spice mix takes away from the original flavor. It taste too much like Mexican flavors and weakens the licorice flavors of the star anise and subtleness of the fennel. Try it without the cumin. Also, without the cumin, if mixed with soy, honey, and green onion and used as a marinade for tofu, it’s great!!!!!!

  • Loszi

    Agree 100% that cumin does not belong here…

  • Cjmasta79

    Thanks marc, I love trying out new things( with spices especially). It`s also interesting to see the comments from other people and what they do with them.

  • Phil

    Just had my first Char Sui pork meal and it was delicious. I highly recommend it.

  • Jeffrey Stephens

    I use 5 spice on french toast. It adds a dimension to the flavor that is unbeatable. I use heavy whipping cream or half & half in the batter for a richer flavor.

    I also use 5 spice in my homemade barbeque sauce.

    BTW, great site.

  • ben w

    “It’s incredibly fragrant, sweet and spicy and unlike regular cinnamon it’s from the bark of a certain species of Cassia tree.”

    Actually, what we commonly refer to as “cinnamon” is cassia. Vietnamese cinnamon is something else again—see Gernot Katzer’s four “cinnamon” entries: .

  • Phil

    Hi Marc, I wasn’t able to find Sichuan pepper at the grocery store, and I went to three different markets. Is there a substitute that you would recommend? Is your 5-spice rub very different from the blend sold in stores? Thanks.

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Hi Phil, western supermarkets won’t have Sichuan pepper. You’ll need to go to a Chinese supermarket or a spice shop. As for the blend every brand has their own formula so it’s a bit like curry powder or garam masala in that there’s huge variation.

  • Lisa Sapp

    Hi Marc, do you know the ingredient which Japanese call “weipa-“? (ウェイパー)

    (comes in this thing)
    (http://blog-imgs-53.fc2.com/2/c/h/2chnokakera/uleipa-00.jpg)

    I don’t know the chinese name for it/ english name equivalent for it?
    A chef I know used some to use when making yakisoba and it’s difficult to come across in US (I was told).
    Thanks! :)
    ~Lisa

  • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

    Hi Lisa,ウェイパー is a powdered “Chinese” soup-base that’s filled with MSG and other synthetic flavor enhancers. I’ve never used it personally because I like to make my stocks from scratch. You could probably make something similar by mixing chicken bouillon granules with MSG, or if you live near a Japanese grocery store, they probably carry it.

    • Lisa Sapp

      Oh, okay
      Thank you for the reply!! I live near an Oriental market but it’s a little big to see if they had something similar to it (and it’s a little difficult to communicate with the workers)
      I don’t really like synthetic stuff and try to opt for more natural. Thank you so much Marc! Probably won’t try this stuff now knowing what it is!!

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