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.
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