Our mothers, aunties and cookbooks all love this blend of spices. We find out more about this impressive quintuplet of flavours.
Commonly slathered over slabs of meat, Chinese five-spice brings delight to both amateur cooks at home and professional chefs in state-of-the-art kitchens. Its name is not uncommon in many Asian households and cuisines – incredibly essential, in fact – and is a spice blend well worth its fame. Famous for the deep earthy depth it imbues familiar hearty dishes, that are created from our stovetops and out of our ovens, Chinese five-spice is a spice medley unlike any other.
And while the ubiquity of the name ‘Chinese five-spice’ is so widely known, it often eclipses the actual spices that make up the blend: fennel, cinnamon, clove, star anise, and Szechuan pepper. Each spice has an important role in building the blend’s signature flavour profiles: sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and bitter.
Here, we break down the Chinese five-spice and find out more about this impressive quintuplet of flavours.
1. FENNEL SEEDS
You might find fennel bulbs tossed into salad and the wispy, elegant leaves that sprout from the bulb itself garnishing a variety of other dishes. Chinese five-spice, however, makes use of the greenish-yellow fennel seeds – dried, miniature, banana-shaped pods that release a warm, earthy aroma. When toasted and ground, as they are in Chinese five-spice, they give rise to a nutty sweetness often compared to that of liquorice.
One of the darlings of both the baking and cooking world, cinnamon is a spice that needs little introduction, even for the least well-versed of cooks (or non-cooks!). From teas and mulled cider that warm the coldest of nights, to sticky cinnamon rolls and fragrant pies whose smells will have your stomach rumbling from any distance away, the versatility of these chocolate-brown wafer-sticks is unparalleled in the kitchen. This rings true too as the cinnamon in Chinese five-spice is also used to flavour more savoury items like meats and soups.
With a long stalk and rounded head, cloves look much like dried tiki torches. While you do not have to be a fire-eater to consume this spice, cloves are still pungent in aroma and have the ability to spread a sharp spiciness across the tongue when bitten into. While it is often paired with other well-loved spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, the intense flavours of clove can make it an intimidating spice to work with. But we on the other hand say, if you decide to play with the fiery clove, you just have to know how to do it right. Evident in Chinese five-spice, as is everything else in life, the key is: moderation.
4. STAR ANISE
True to its name, the star anise has a shape resembling that of a twinkling star hanging in the deep, dark night. While it shares a similar aroma and taste with fennel seeds, star anise is not to be mistaken for anything less than unique. It is sweet and slightly woodsy in the mouth, much like candied liquorice, and thus makes a great addition to desserts like pies and cakes. It can also be added into more savoury dishes like curries and soups, including a certain Vietnamese pho-vourite.
5. SZECHUAN PEPPER
More commonly known to Singaporeans as the ‘ma’ in the ever so craved for mala, the numbing sensation – known as paraesthesia – that Szechuan peppercorns spread is like a mild, tingling fire on the lips and in the mouth. The peppercorns are, of course, extremely important in Szechuan cuisine and a staple in dishes like dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, and mala. And though tiny, with reddish-brown shell spread apart like a gaping clam, the peppercorn does not hold back in delivering a big, bold kick of spice to all who seek it.