While it's commonly believed that it gets it's name because it contains 5 spices, the number in the name Chinese Five Spice Powder 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 Chinese five 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 Chinese five spice powder for some time, but the catalyst that got things going was receiving a gift of Vietnamese Cinnamon. It's incredibly fragrant, sweet, and spicy and, unlike the more common Ceylon cinnamon, it's from the bark of a different species of Cassia tree. The flavor is more complex, giving this Chinese five spice powder more depth of flavor, but you can substitute other types if you like.
I've seen many blends containing everything from fennel to celery seed, but I had a specific flavor in mind and went about toasting and grinding the spices until I hit the right balance. The resulting blend is complex, heady, and familiar, with a fragrance that gets your mouth salivating in anticipation.
While most of the ingredients in this Chinese five spice blend are widely available and familiar to western chefs, Sichuan pepper is a little less common, but it is essential in this Chinese five spice powder. 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 in Nepalese it's called Timur and in Japan there's a related spice called Sansho.
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; very distinctive of Sichuan cuisine. When dried, the shiny black seeds inside the brown husks have a distinctly gritty sand-like texture, and since the husk is the part with the flavor, you must pick out all the black seeds (labor intensive, but worth it). More expensive Sichuan pepper tends to have fewer seeds and unopened pods.
Once you've tried this homemade Chinese Five Spice Powder in dishes like my Char Siu Pork, Siu Yuk, or Spicy Wontons in Chili Oil, you'll never want to use store-bought Chinese five spice powder again. And you're sure to come up with all kinds of ways to use it, like sprinkling it on roasted chicken or adding it to fried rice or chow mein.
- 3 pods star anise
- 20 whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick (crumbled)
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan pepper (husks only, remove any black seeds)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon 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.