There is a theory that Chinese five-spice powder was developed to encompass the five fundamental tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent (spicy hot). Although the origins of five-spice powder are lost to history, the truth is, there is nothing salty about this traditional five-spice blend. And, "spicy hot" is technically not considered one of the main taste components in cuisine.
Still, the theory that five-spice encompasses a balance of the main flavors, in accordance with the balancing philosophy of yin and yang, is widely cited.
What's in a Five-Spice Powder?
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.
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.
Ground cloves have a pungent, sweet flavor.
Star anise has a taste similar to licorice with a more bitter undertone.
Fennel is similar to anise but sweeter and less pungent without as much of the licorice taste.
Variations on Five-Spice Powder
Five-spice powder can also include anise seeds, ginger root, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, amomum villosum pods (similar to cardamom in the ginger family), licorice, orange peel, or galangal.
In southern China, five-spice powder usually uses Saigon cinnamon and orange peel to replace Chinese cinnamon and cloves, so the five-spice powder from southern China tastes a little bit different compared to other five-spice powder from other regions of China.
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 or you can rub it onto chicken before you roast it.
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.
This fragrant mixture is delicious in any stir-fry recipe. Also, try mixing a teaspoon with some oil and vinegar and use it to baste steak or pork while it's on the grill.
Occasionally you will also see five-spice powder added to a sauce. The five-spice powder goes very nicely with tofu. It's one of the secret ingredients in pressed seasoned bean curd.