Five-Spice Powder - Spices and Flavors

Woman smelling spices at market
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Question: Five-Spice Powder - Which Spice Gives Which Taste?

Answer: The origins of five-spice powder are lost to history. It's thought that ancient Chinese were attempting to produce a "wonder powder" that encompasses all five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and a fifth taste that is alternately known as hot, pungent or spicy. But which of the spices that make up five-spice powder matches which taste?

What's in a Five-Spice Powder?

A typical recipe for five-spice powder calls for szechuan peppercorns, ground cloves, fennel, cinnamon, and star anise. Let's see what taste (or tastes) each of the spices contributes:

1. Cinnamon:
Cinnamon is sweet, but unlike sugar, it has a spicy undertone. Some five-spice recipes call for Chinese cinnamon or cassia, a close cousin of true cinnamon, but with a more pungent flavor.

2. Szechuan peppercorns:
Not a pepper at all, but a reddish brown berry that comes from the prickly ash bush, Szechuan peppercorn has a truly unique taste. The first sensation from this aromatic spice is a peppery (spicy) taste that quickly numbs the tongue. Soon, you'll pick up hints of anise and ginger, gradually becoming lemony (sour), salty and hot.

3. Ground Cloves:
Ground cloves have a pungent, sweet flavor.

4. Star Anise:
Star anise has a taste similar to licorice, with a more bitter undertone.

5. Fennel:
Fennel is similar to anise but sweeter and less pungent, without so much of a licorice taste.

When to Use Five-Spice Powder

Five-spice powder adds a spicy kick to dry rubs or marinades for meat, fish or poultry. It goes particularly well with pork -- a traditional dish called "Five Flower Pork" consists of pork belly that is marinated in five-spice powder and other seasonings and steamed.

Western versions of the dish substitute pork tenderloin or pork chops and call for stir-frying instead of steaming. Occasionally you will also see five-spice powder added to a sauce. And five-spice powder goes very nicely with tofu -- it's one of the secret ingredients in pressed seasoned bean curd.

Five-Spice Powder Recipes

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