Trust us, you'll use this powerful blend in way more than Chinese food.
When it comes to Chinese and Taiwanese cooking, the spice blend you’ll run into over and over again is five-spice powder. Its warm, slightly sweet taste is what gives dishes like Peking duck and other East Asian-inspired meat dishes their distinct, tangy-sweet flavor—and if it doesn’t already, this fragrant blend should hold a permanent place in your spice rack.
This spice blend is typically made of (you guessed it) five spices: a Chinese variety of cinnamon, called cassia cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. But like most spice blends, there are just about as many recipes for Chinese five-spice as there are people who make and use them—many even include more than five spices. Blends from regions in the south of China can use Saigon cinnamon and orange peel for a fruitier flavor. Some recipes may also include white pepper, anise seed, nutmeg, or ginger.
The signature spice blend’s origins are murky—it’s been a staple of Chinese cuisine and is packed with tradition and history. But there’s some speculation that this blend was created in traditional Chinese medicine some time in the fourth century BCE in order to be a perfect combination of all five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. Though it’s originally a Chinese spice mix, it’s also found its way into other international cuisines, such as Vietnamese and Hawaiian food, and even appears as a fun, flavor-packed addition to cocktails and desserts.
Five-spice powder works especially well with slow-simmered, “greasy” meats like duck and pork, but if you’re stumped on how to incorporate it into your everyday cooking, you don’t need to be constrained to traditionally Chinese or even East Asian cuisine. Mix the spice blend with salt for an easy dry rub for any protein of your choice. These Five-Spice Chicken Breasts with Sesame-Orange Beans are an effortless, 20-minute meal that lets the spice blend take center stage. Use it to spice up an ordinary steak, like this Five-Spice Flank Steak—the spice and sugar rub helps achieve a beautiful char.
Veggie entrees and snacks can benefit from the blend’s spicy boost, too. Use it in marinades and sauces before pan-frying tofu, or even sprinkled on to these Spicy Sweet Potato Wedges for a flavorful twist on a familiar side. Five-Spice Pecans, Chinese Five-Spiced Apple Chips and Five-Spice Cranberry Relish with Goat Cheese are all appetizers and effortless snacks that feel a little extra *fancy* with the addition of the spice mix.
If you’re ready to take the Chinese five-spice plunge, you have a couple choices. Option one: for the freshest flavor and most control over the heat and sweetness that you desire, make your own by grinding equal parts cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorn in a spice or coffee grinder. If you’d like, you can pass the powder through a sieve to remove any remaining large chunks. Make sure to store this blend in an airtight container away from moisture and heat so it’ll last as long as you need. Not ready to make your own? Look for Chinese five-spice powder on the spice aisle of a well-stocked grocery store, at an Asian market, or online—and make sure to order a little extra. Once you start using this tangy sweet blend, you’ll be sprinkling it on everything.