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Five Spice Powder and the Five Elements Theory

Was Five-Spice Powder the First "Feel Good" Drug?

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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. All of the five flavors - sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty - are found in five-spice powder. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Recipes

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?

Szechuan Pepper - This trivia question from my newsletter provides a background on Szechuan pepper, also known as "pepper flower."

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.

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