Monday, August 27, 2018

Chinese Five Spice – a Magic Powder that Makes Sparks Fly

Pin It One of my earliest food memories is of a night I went to the theatre with my parents. As if that were not treat enough, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant on Dublin’s Dame Street on the way home. My meal came in a little fried potato basket which I was convinced the chef had spent hours weaving. J  I loved the mixture of dishes that arrived, and better still, getting to taste them all. One sublime duck dish had a distinctive warmth and depth of flavour (although at the time I would probably simply have described it as “yummy”). This particular flavour I’ve come to recognise as the work of Chinese Five Spice.

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent... Magic!

Chinese Five Spice used to puzzle me because sometimes there were more than five flavours in the mix. I discovered that the five refers to the five flavour sensations rather than the number of spices. These are sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. Chinese Five Spice is readily available in your supermarket, but it is incredibly easy to make. Chinese Five Spice is wonderful with fatty meats such as pork, and duck, and adds great flavour to stir-fries, vegetables, soups and tofu dishes. It is powerful so a little goes a long way.

I'm going to be fennel seed when I grow up!
Over time, I’ve evolved the proportions to suit my taste buds, however feel free to vary the quantities of any element to suit your own taste.  As with any spices, I like to keep small quantities in stock so that the turnover in the kitchen is high and they are not kept around for ages, getting stale and losing flavour.

The Spice of Life

For about 8 teaspoons of powder (enough for several meals) you will need...

1 tablespoon Szechuan pepper corns
6 whole cloves
4 pieces star anise
1 x 6cm (2½) inch piece of cinnamon stick or cassia
1 tablespoon fennel seed

·                  Dry roast the pepper corns for about 1 minute in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add to the rest of the ingredients and grind to a fine powder using a spice grinder, food processor or pestle and mortar. Sift the powder to remove any pieces that haven’t been totally pulverised. Store the mixture in a small jar in a dry dark place and use within 1 month.

A really quick cheat to find your flavour preference is to use pre-ground spices and mix ½ teaspoon each of the five elements. You’ll quickly get to know which flavours you prefer to dominate and adjust them accordingly next time you make up the mix. It is trial and error but when you find the combination that suits you, sparks fly!

p.s. thanks to LiveLifeNYC whose question sparked this post.
Pin It


  1. Five spice powder is something I really enjoy. I had never thought about making my own. Truth be told I did not know what it the ingredients were. I generally store the spices that I want to keep their kick in the freezer. I am not certain that it makes a huge difference but at least it's col an dark LOL
    I have used it making Asian pork meatballs.

  2. I LOVE five's also my secret ingredient for a quick pho soup. I use it in way too many things. Thanks for showing how to make your own.

  3. Wow you actually made your own? That's so cool. I just buy them in a jar and they last pretty much for ever since I only use a tiny bit. I normally add them when I make roast chicken, or on duck breasts. It’s so good!

  4. This is gorgeous Hester. We grind a lot of our own spices too. I hate those little canisters that sit around for months on end and then taste like dull spice when used.
    I have never tried to make five-spice and will now have to get grinding!

  5. Fabulous idea! I have only used it a handful of times, but should use it more. It is very aromatic!

  6. Wonderful - I love 5 spice, but I'm allergic to cinnamon, so I can't indulge. Unfortunately, it loses something without it....

    As always - your pictures are amazing!

  7. Love your post, Hester. You know, I had never thought of making my own: incredible, all ingredients are in the cupboard so no excuse - and didn't know the 5 were the senses rather than spices. You've inspired me for dindins this week, merci! Love the fennel photo and your joke. Lovely.

  8. Lovely post, pretty pics. This is the spice mix used in my favourite Chinese dish, crispy aromatic duck which I just learned was created in the UK in the 1950's (!) as a more convenient version of Peking duck. Now I understand why many Australian Chinese restaurants required 24 hours notice for this, and in the UK it is standard on the menu.

  9. The powder is magical for sure. Your home-made version is probably far superior to the pre-made ones I buy, its still magic though:)

  10. Very interesting post about this spice blend. I have some in my cupboard and have tried it here and there, but never really knew what to do with it. Very helpful information. Have a good week. :)

  11. I always by it combined already, but the idea of grinding your own spices does sound better. The lady at the spice store stated that all those spices last 2 years after opened-I know that is not true and it does vary from spice to spice.

  12. I always had this when I made a chinese noodle or else but never made it from scratch, but a ready one... hehe he
    Tq for sharing the recipe & story!
    Congratz for the top 9 on foodbuzz! ;)

  13. What a lovely post...with gorgeous photos and sweet memories! Congrats on the Top 9!!!!

  14. Great post with lots of beautiful pictures! I love five spice and never thought of making it at home! Thanks for this Hester! :-) Hope you are having a great week!

  15. I need to get my hands on some Szechuan pepper corns! I do love the magic of five spice and your pictures of the spices are lovely.

  16. Oh heavens, how I love five-spice powder. My first experience was with a Vietnamese dish. As soon as I found out what it was, I purchased some and have used it with abandon ever since.

    I never even thought of making my own though so I am truly grateful that you posted this. The photos are gorgeous and I can't wait to prepare a batch. Many thanks!

  17. I did not know that 5-spice was based on the flavor sensations as opposed to the number of spices! Interesting! I love this spice but the only place I can find it is at a local Asian store, so making it would be wonderful! Loved the post!

  18. I love this post so much, Hester - there isn't enough discussion about crafting proper spice mixes. You really demystified Chinese five spice mix and I love your blend. Congrats on Top 9!!


Share your thoughts - I'd love to hear from you!