Chinese five-spice powder is a mixture of five dry ground spices that is used extensively in Chinese cooking. It is the most well-known spice mixture of China and is also used in various other parts of Asia, including in Vietnamese cooking. In Mandarin, five-spice powder is called wu xiang fen and in Cantonese it is ngh heung fan.
The five spices in five-spice powder are generally star anise (ba jiao), Szechuan peppercorns (hua jiao), fennel seeds (xiao hui), cinnamon (rou gui), and cloves (ding xiang). The proportions of the spices is given below.
General Recipe for Five-Spice Powder
- 5 parts star anise
- 5 parts fennel seeds
- 4 parts cinnamon
- 3 parts cloves
- 1 part Szechuan (Sichuan) pepper
Recommendation: Szechuan Pepper Tin from SpiceCubed
Star anise, then, is the dominant ingredient. Either Cinnamomum loureiroi (Saigon Cinnamon, cassia) or Cinnamomum aromaticum (Chinese Cinnamon) might be used for the cinnamon, depending on the region. In Southern China, mandarin peel might be used in place of cloves. Other ingredients are sometimes included, such as ground ginger and licorice. McCormick brand 5 Spice Blend uses ginger, but no Szechuan pepper.
Unfortunately, starting in 1968, the U.S. government banned the import of Szechuan peppercorns, commonly spelled Sichuan. They were found to carry a bacteria which could hard U.S. citrus crops called citrus canker. There was no danger to humans, and the ban was finally lifted in 2005, as long as the peppercorns were heated to at least 158°F (70°C), sufficient to kill the bacteria, before being imported. They are now available in specialty markets and online.
5-spice powder is rubbed onto pork, chicken, or duck, or mixed with a sweetener such as syrup or honey and spread over the meat before cooking. It can also be used in marinades, or in braising liquids. It may be added to cornstarch batters for coating and deep frying meats and vegetables.
Note on the Spelling of Szechuan
There are at least three commonly used spellings of Szechuan on the internet and in printed sources. Besides “Sichuan” which is mentioned in parenthesis above, “Szechwan” with a W instead of a U is also used. Undoubtedly, there are other, less common renderings as well. There are different ways to transliterate or “Romanticize” Chinese words. The People’s Republic Of China now officially uses the term Sichuan for the province, the pinyin spelling, but the spelling Szechuan is still more common when referring to the cuisine or the food items.
Why Five Spices?
Although some versions of the mixture might contain more than 5 spices, the original blend contained five spices because the Chinese believe that five is a special number, with healing powers.
Can You Use Black Peppercorns in Place of Sichuan-Szechuan Peppercorns?
Many cookbooks and other sources recommend substituting black peppercorns or even red pepper flakes (usually dried red chile peppers such a cayenne, broken up into flakes). Although this will deliver some pungency to the mixture, the flavor is not a very close match at all.
Despite both spices being referred to as “pepper,:” Szechuan peppercorns and black peppercorns are not actually related. Black peppercorns come from a vine called Piper nigrum, of the genus Piper and the family Piperacae. The peppercorns are the dried fruits, or “drupes” of the plant. What we know as white pepper are the same fruits, with the darker skin of the fruit removed. They can also be pink, red, orange, or green, due to processes used to preserve the color when drying, although this is less common. Spices from many other species are also known as “pepper.”
Chinese Szechuan peppercorns come from one of two species of plants in the citrus family, which are also sometimes called prickly ash. The peppercorns come from either Zanthoxylum simulans or Zanthoxylum bungeanum. There is also a related Japanese spice called sansho, or Zanthoxylum piperitum. The spice is actually the dried rinds of the small fruits. These contain chemicals such as citronellal and citronellol, which are similar to the chemicals piperine in black pepper, and capsaicin in chile peppers. However, they are much more aromatic, and less pungent. At the same time, Szechuan pepper produces a strange sensation in the mouth, such as tingling or buzzing, usually reported as pleasant. They also have a more acrid aftertaste. Overall, the flavor and experience is much different than black pepper, and much more complex.
Now that the ban on Szechuan peppercorns is lifted, they can be readily purchased, and to make five-spice powder with an authentic taste, they are recommended. However, you may want to go easy at first, as Szechuan peppercorns can tend to overwhelm other flavors. They also contain an alkaloyd that temporarilly numbs the tongue. While many writers on Chinese cooking claim that this reduces the heat sensation from chiles, and brings out other flavors, I’ve found them to dull flavors unless only very small amounts are used.
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