Although the exact origins of five-spice powder are lost to history, there is some thought that the Chinese were attempting to produce a "wonder powder" encompassing all of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements are represented by the five flavors sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty. Then again, it's possible that a cook accidentally stumbled upon this particular combination of spices, and realized its power to enliven the blandest dish. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that five-spice powder is unique.
What Is Five-Spice Powder?
Of course, these days the specific combination of spices used to make up five-spice powder varies. In fact, some brands could more accurately be labeled "seven-spice powder," since they contain seven ingredients. A standard recipe calls for fennel, cloves, and cinnamon, along with star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. However, you'll also find five-spice powder made with cassia (a member of the same family as cinnamon), ginger, nutmeg, and even licorice (star anise has a wonderful licorice flavor). Feel free to experiment with different varieties until you find the one you like best.
Where to Buy Five-Spice Powder
Bottled five-spice powder can often be found at local supermarkets. However, if at all possible, I would recommend purchasing it from an Asian market. You'll pay less, and the spice mixture will be more authentic. An added advantage is that it is frequently packaged in plastic bags, allowing the aroma to come through and giving you a chance to compare brands before buying. At home, remove from the bag and store in a dry place in a sealed jar.
How to Make Your Own Five-Spice Powder
Below I've provided a basic recipe for five-spice powder, along with several dishes that make use of its powerful flavor. But don't limit your use of five-spice powder to specific recipes - add it whenever you want to lend flavor to stir-fries, soups, and red-cooked dishes. It works well with meats and makes an excellent marinade. (You'll sometimes find packages of five-spice marinade designed specifically for chicken in Asian markets). Just remember to use sparingly - a little goes a long way.
Watch Now: How to Make Homemade Five-Spice Powder
Recipes With Five-Spice Powder
Spiced Nuts Five-spice Peanuts
Cold Spiced Beef (uses three of the ingredients found in five-spice powder)
Hawaiian Luau Barbecued Beef Ribs
Chocolate Fusion Fondue
Related Articles: Five Spice Powder: Which Spice Gives Which Taste? - How do the individual spices contribute to the sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy taste of five-spice powder?
Cinnamon - One of the ingredients of five-spice powder. The article includes a history of the spice, along with information on storage and use, and health benefits. Also, explains the difference between cinnamon and cassia.