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An old friend from England contacted me yesterday via Facebook with a couple of questions about Five Spice Powder.

Thought there me be some interest here, too.

Is there anything more typically Chinese than five spice powder (五香粉 - wǔ xiāng fěn)?

 

Well, yes. A lot.

 

Many years ago, I worked in an office overlooking London’s China town. By around 11 am, the restaurants started getting lunch ready and the smell of FSP blanketed the area for the rest of the day. When I moved to China, I didn’t smell that. Only when I first visited Hong Kong, did I find that smell again.

 

In fact, FSP is relatively uncommon in most of Chinese cuisine. And if I ever see another internet recipe called “Chinese” whatever, which is actually any random food, but the genius behind it has added FSP, supposedly rendering it Chinese, I’ll scream.

I get all sorts of smells wafting through the neighbourhood. Some mouth-watering; some horrifying. But I don't recall ever that they were FSP.

 

But what is it anyway? Which five spices?

 

Today, I bought four samples in four local supermarkets. I would have would have preferred five, but couldn’t find any more. It's not that popular.
 

First thing to say: none of them had five spices. All had more. That is normal. Numbers in Chinese can often be vague. Every time you hear a number, silently added the word ‘about’ or ‘approximately’. 100 km means “far”, 10,000 means “many”.
 

Second, while there are some common factors, ingredients can vary quite a bit. Here are my four.


1.


1.jpg

 

Ingredients – 7
 

Star Anise, Fennel Seed, Orange Peel, Cassia Bark, Sand Ginger, Dried Ginger, Sichuan Peppercorns.

 

2.

 

2.jpg

 

Ingredients – 6

 

Cassia Bark, Star Anise, Fennel Seed, Coriander, Sichuan Peppercorn, Licorice Root.


3.

 

3.jpg

 

Ingredients – 15

 

Fennel Seeds, Sichuan Peppercorns, Coriander, Tangerine Peel, Star Anise, Chinese Haw, Cassia Bark, Lesser Galangal, Dahurian Angelica, Nutmeg, Dried Ginger, Black Pepper, Amomum Villosum, Cumin Seeds, Cloves.

4.

 

4.jpg

 

Ingredients – 6

 

Pepper (unspecified – probably black pepper), Sichuan Peppercorns, Star Anise, Fennel Seeds, Nutmeg, Cassia.

 

So, take your pick. They all taste and smell almost overwhelmingly of the star anise and cassia, although there are subtle differences in taste in the various mixes.

 

But I don’t expect to find it in many dishes in local restaurants or homes. A quick, unscientific poll of about ten friends today revealed that not one has any at home, nor have they ever used the stuff!
 

Quote

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord!, please don't let me be misunderstood.

first recorded by Nina Simone 1964

 

I'm not suggesting that FSP shouldn't be used outside of Chinese food. Please just don't call the results Chinese when you sprinkle it on your fish and chips or whatever. They haven't miraculously become Chinese!

Like my neighbours and friends, I very rarely use it at all.

In fact, I'd be delighted to hear how it is used in other cultures / cuisines.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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It's interesting to hear the Chinese perspective on this.

 

According to my battered and beloved hard copy of "The Joy of Cooking" (and I can't really tell you the correct copyright date because it has 22 of them ranging from 1931 to 1997) this is their take on the recipe for Five Spice Powder:

 

"The first three ingredients in this licorice-scented brown powder are star anise, Szechuan pepper, and fennel or anise seeds. Cinnamon and cloves bring the number to five, but two more may be added, chosen from licorice root, cardamom, and ginger."

 

They also suggest black pepper as a substitute for Szechuan and ground star anise as an alternative to five spice powder.

 

I have only one kind of five spice on hand, and that is by the McCormick brand. It lists anise, cinnamon (which I am sure is a lie, because mfgs. are allowed to call cassia cinnamon here :(), star anise, cloves, ginger and sulfiting agents. When I bought it at an expensive price, to replace the packet from the bulk spice rack I bought at Fresh Market much cheaper, I recall not liking the McCormick brand nearly as well. The Fresh Market packet is long discarded, but I suspect it had the Sichuan peppercorns which seem to be a consistent theme for the brands you listed and missing in the McCormick version. I am also thinking that star anise being so far down the list of ingredients (in order by weight by law) is not a good thing. If anyone knows of a better brand available in the USA, please pipe up.

 

I mostly use it for pork roast, ribs, chicken or Cornish hen when I want to take it in an Asian direction. It can be a dry rub for fatty roast pork, part of a soy marinade for ribs, or a sweet, sour, salty, spicy glaze for chicken and Cornish hen. So sue me. :D

 

When I have ordered roast pork, sometimes called char sui, in local restaurants calling themselves Chinese, it often tastes of five spice. I like it, but I promise not to think of it as authentic Chinese anymore.

 

I also have some good ideas now to improve the flavor of my pricey but disappointing jar of McCormick, so thanks.

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Okay, I just dug out my Penzey's catalog to see what they had to day on the subject..

They claim their version is "hand-mixed" from China and contains cinnamon, star anise, anise seed, ginger and cloves.  No pepper at all. They did stick to five ingredients but adding some pepper would have been a plus in my book.  

 

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1 hour ago, Thanks for the Crepes said:

When I have ordered roast pork, sometimes called char sui, in local restaurants calling themselves Chinese, it often tastes of five spice. I like it, but I promise not to think of it as authentic Chinese anymore.

 

Char sui is Hong Kong / Cantonese so yes, it often features FSP. So, I'd say you could call it 'authentic'.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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9 minutes ago, robirdstx said:

This is the one I have on hand:

 

http://www.worldfiner.com/nfi.php?upc=0-70670-00059-4

 

Only five ingredients - Anise, Ginger, Cinnamon, Fennel and Black Peppper.

 

I think I only use it when making Martin Yan's Five-spice Broiled Pork Chop recipe.

 

The link does say that the country of origin is the USA, in which case the cinnamon is almost certainly cassia and the use of "anise" is ambiguous - it could mean aniseed or star anise, two unrelated plants. Probably the latter.

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I never thought that five spice powder was supposed to contain exactly five ingredients, and just about anything that I have ever read on the spice stressed that the name is not to be taken literally, nor are the number and/or the precise ingredients to be viewed as "fixed." It's kind of like assuming that thousand-year-old eggs have really aged for a thousand years. Most people do not think this. And if anyone wants to put Chinese five spice powder (because that is what it is called here, like it or not) in their tomato sauce and call it Chinese style tomato sauce, then that is their decision to make. Your posts are informative, but they're also very condescending. I appreciate the one, but not the other.

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On 10/02/2017 at 5:25 AM, cakewalk said:

I never thought that five spice powder was supposed to contain exactly five ingredients, and just about anything that I have ever read on the spice stressed that the name is not to be taken literally, nor are the number and/or the precise ingredients to be viewed as "fixed." It's kind of like assuming that thousand-year-old eggs have really aged for a thousand years. Most people do not think this.

 

Well, obviously I don't know what you have read, but there are innumerable mentions in descriptions of five spice powder in books, magazines and internet articles which state that it contains five spices. In fact, I have been unable to find one that says " the name is not to be taken literally“ or anything similar.

Things like this abound.

 

Quote

Used extensively in Chinese cooking, this pungent mixture of five ground spices usually consists of equal parts of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. Prepackaged five-spice powder is available in Asian markets and most supermarkets.
 

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

 

I have been looking through recipes on the internet for home made FSP. I got very bored looking for one that had more than five ingredients and gave up.

 

Even the McCormick's website states "This blend of five spices, extensively used in Chinese cuisine, brings warm, spicy-sweet flavors to stir-fries and roasted meats..." despite the version they sell here containing six.

Until I changed it a couple of days ago, the relevant Wikipedia page stated "Five-spice powder is a spice mixture of five spices used primarily in Chinese cuisine". I added  "or more".

 

Also, you'd be surprised how many people think that 1000-year-old-eggs are not only really 1000 years old, but are also made by people burying eggs in the ground and having a horse urinate on them before their long wait for breakfast.

 

On 10/02/2017 at 5:25 AM, cakewalk said:

if anyone wants to put Chinese five spice powder (because that is what it is called here, like it or not) in their tomato sauce and call it Chinese style tomato sauce, then that is their decision to make.

 

Why do you assume that I may not like it being called Chinese five spice powder? I never thought or said anything like that. I took it that, the post being in the Chinese forums section, people would probably guess I wasn't referring to Patagonian five spice powder.

 

However, I still say that putting FSP into an American style tomato sauce doesn't magically turn it into a Chinese tomato sauce. It turns it into American tomato sauce with FSP in it. Simple fact. But you can call it anything you like.

 

I am sorry you find my posts condescending. No one else has ever complained before. Or maybe they are just polite. Or not as all-knowing as you.


Edited by liuzhou clarification (log)
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1 hour ago, liuzhou said:

In fact, I have been unable to find one that says " the name is not to be taken literally“ or anything similar.

 

Not exactly your words, and not an ancient Chinese authority, but this is what Bruce Cost said in his Asian Inir?t=egulletcom-20&l=am2&o=1&a=068805877ir?t=egulletcom-20&l=am2&o=1&a=068805877gredients book (1988), under Spice Mixtures:

Quote

Five Spices  This is a holdover from a time when medicinal uses of spices were as important as culinary.  The number five had symbolic power, ensuring the healthfulness of this mixture.  Not always exactly five spices, it commonly contains star anise, fennel or anise seed, cinnamon, cloves, licorice root, Sichuan peppercorns and sometimes ground ginger.  It's used in southern China and Vietnam to season meats and poultry to be roasted...

 

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6 hours ago, blue_dolphin said:

This is a holdover from a time when medicinal uses of spices were as important as culinary.  The number five had symbolic power, ensuring the healthfulness of this mixture.

 

I'm not surprised that there are some references which get that right. My point is more that they are very much in the minority. Try finding a similar reference on the internet  - I spent a while looking before deciding I had better things to do. Didn't find one.

I am however surprised that he refers to the importance of medicinal use of spices as being something in the past. It still very much is important, often more so than culinary use. In fact, many spices are only readily available from pharmacies rather than food stores or markets. Herbs even more so.

 

For example, if I were to attempt to make the third version I described, I would definitely have to visit the pharmacy. Dahurian Angelica, and Amomum Villosum are only found there.

As to the numerology, interesting. I've never heard that association with health. I've always understood it to be more an oblique reference to the classic five Chinese tastes - bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and pungent. Five suggests balance in Chinese thinking. But, I suppose balance is healthy! (The five elements are considered to be metal, wood, water, fire and earth, which together also indicate balance).

 

On the other hand, five (五 wǔ) is a near homophone of (无 wú) which means "not" or "nothing. By association, 5 therefore often has a negative meaning.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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A son brought me back a packet of 13-spice powder from Beijing a few years ago - when he went to buy some 5-spice powder, the shop assistant said that anybody who likes to cook would like the 13-spice blend better. I have to agree, although the 5-spice blend is good for cutting through very rich and oily foods, the 13-spice blend has more warmth...yet it's obvious that it belongs to the same family of spice blends!

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My Northern Chinese mother, living in Australia used Five Spice Powder in basically everything. That and chicken powder were basically the only spices we knew growing up.

 

Ironically, I had a devil of a time finding Five Spice Powder for sale living in Hong Kong. Nowadays, I make my own and it goes in a few specific dishes. I do like adding just a touch of it to conventional dishes, below the taste threshold, to give them just a taste of exoticness that people can't figure out (meatballs, steak, salad dressing etc.)

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