If you’re a fan of Asian cooking, there are a few staples that should always be stocked in your pantry. There are some that we are all more or less very familiar with: soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger. But then, there’s Chinese five-spice powder. This is a sweet, spicy, pungent powder that results in bold, flavorful dishes. It may be a staple in Chinese cuisine, but it has yet to gain the same presence as specialty sauces like hoisin has in the U.S. One thing is certain, however, this is one spice blend that is deserving of our attention.
What is Chinese Five-Spice?
Chinese five-spice powder is one of the essential bases of Chinese cooking. Just a small amount of this pungent spice blend goes a long way, adding a balance of sweet, savory, bitter, and sour to dishes. Traditionally, it is made from a blend of star anise, fennel seeds, cassia bark (also known as Chinese cinnamon), Szechuan peppercorns, and cloves. The whole spices are ground together into a fine powder that works well in such as soups, stews, and sauces as well as meaty dishes like veggie burgers, tofu, and tempeh.
Make Your Own Chinese Five-Spice
You can buy pre-ground Chinese five-spice in the store or you can make your own. To do that, you will need one empty spice bottle. You will also need an electric spice grinder (a mini coffee grinder works, too) or a mortar and pestle. Combine 1 1/2 tablespoons star anise, 2 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds, 1 1/2 teaspoons cassia (or cinnamon) 1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns, and 1/2 teaspoon cloves in your spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind into a fine powder. Use a kitchen funnel to pour the spice blend into the bottle. If you don’t have a funnel, you can make one yourself by cutting a piece of printer paper in half horizontally, rolling it into a cone, and taping the edges down. Now, you’re ready to get cooking with your homemade Chinese five-spice powder!
Traditionally, Chinese five-spice powder has been used when cooking fatty meats like duck, pork, and goose, as a spice rub for meat. It is also used as a flavoring for breaded fried foods, in stews, and in “red cooking,” a cooking technique that is best described as a form of braising. Although many of the ways that Chinese five-spice is traditionally used includes meat or seafood, but it is as easy to apply the same basic methods of cooking to plant-based dishes.
Chinese five-spice is one of the flavors in this Hoisin Black Bean Burger With Spicy Sesame Sauce — just one teaspoon is enough to make the flavor stand out. It is also one of the flavors in this Rou Jia Mo: Chinese Burger, which consists of tofu and marinated veggies packed into a fluffy “mo,” a type of flatbread. In these Chinese Five-Spice Pulled Jackfruit Spring Rolls, jackfruit is cooked with onion, garlic, and Chinese five-spice powder; a method that you can also apply to this Barbecue Pulled Jackfruit Sandwich or any jackfruit recipe where the texture resembles pulled pork.
For marinades, try adding a pinch of Chinese five-spice to meaty recipes like these Sticky Baked BBQ Tempeh Strips, this Savory Herb-Baked Tempeh, this General Tso’s Tofu, or learn how to make basic marinades and use it on this recipe for Basic Seitan. For something braised, add a Chinese five-spice to this Braised Seitan Short Ribs in Spicy Chili Sauce.
Next, dry rubs. Add a pinch of Chinese five-spice to this Spice-Rubbed Roasted Cauliflower Steak and serve it with one of these Asian-inspired sauces instead of the spinach-tahini sauce., this Smoked Seitan, and these Curry Spiced Carrots to infuse them with sweet, pungent, and savory flavor.
Finally, baked goods. A pinch of Chinese five-spice will add a unique layer of warmth to your baked goods. Try it in these gluten-free Chinese Five-Spice Doughnuts, which are sweet, a little savory, and stuffed with sweet red bean paste.
Where to Buy
Chinese five-spice powder may not be available in your local grocery store. If you cannot find it in the spice aisle, check the international aisle. Or, try your local Asian supermarket or a grocery store like Whole Foods or Fairway. If none of these options works for you, you can buy online.
This Frontier Five Spice Powder is a blend of cinnamon, fennel, cloves, star anise, and white pepper. One 1.92-ounce bottle costs $3.31. It is important to note that many commercially available Chinese five-spice powders substitute Szechuan peppercorns for regular pepper. So for the most authentic flavor, make your own. These Szechuan Peppercorns are perfect for making your own five-spice powder. An 8-ounce container costs $8.85. You might also notice that cinnamon and not cassia is listed as one of the ingredients in the pre-made five-spice powder; that is fine. In the United States, most commercially produced ground cinnamon is actually made from cassia bark.
Aside from being used in dry rubs, marinades, braised food, and baked goods, Chinese five-spice is a great addition to stir-frys, fried foods, stews, and even soups.
Try it in soups like this Anti-Inflammatory Sweet Potato Soup, this Cleansing Detox Soup, or this Tom Yum Soup or stews like this Coconut-Mango Stew With Homemade Naan and this Korean Spicy Potato and Vegetable Stew.
Or, simply add it to any vegan Chinese recipe! Vegetable dishes like this Sautéed Chinese Hollow-Stem Spinach, thisSzechuan Eggplant in Garlic Sauce, and this Chinese Long Bean Stir-Fry are perfect options to start with. Or, add it to this Tofu in Black Pepper Sauce, this 10-Minute Chinese Hot Oil Noodles, and this Szechuan Hot and Sour Soup.
Remember, when adding Chinese five-spice to dishes, start with a small amount, taste, and add more as desired. A little goes a long way!
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