A favorite post from 2007, updated with a new recipe, photos and links.
Can you name:
The five W's? (who, what, where, when, why)
The five senses? (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste)
The five elements? (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water)
The five flavors? (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty)
The five spices in Chinese five-spice powder?
Star anise, clove, fennel, cinnamon (or cassia), and Szechuan pepper comprise the only common spice blend in Chinese cookery. India has its masalas; the Mideast and Africa give us berbere and baharat, harissa and ras el hanout. From France comes the incomparable quatre-epices. And America offers barbecue dry rubs of infinite variation, and crab boil.
In China, there's really only five-spice. Which is sometimes seven-spice, with the addition of cardamom, dried ginger, or licorice root.
Most popular in the cooking of southern China (and also Vietnam), five-spice powder may have originated as an attempt to create a "wonder drug" that brought all of the five elements into harmony, balancing yin and yang.
Each of the spices contributes an important flavor to the mix, though the dominant taste and aroma may be the star anise, with a licorice-like taste and a slightly bitter undertone. Cinnamon, fennel and cloves provide sweetness, but also a pungency. Szechuan peppercorns contribute a spicy, peppery taste that mellows to sour and salty.
A little goes a long way, so unless you are wokking up a storm, buy this spice blend in small quantities (or buy a larger, more economical amount and share with friends). Penzeys sells a one-ounce jar for $3.29.
You can make your own five-spice, of course. All you need is a small skillet and a spice grinder (a.k.a. coffee grinder dedicated to spices) or mortar and pestle.
Adjust the proportions and taste, until your yin and yang agree.
Every now and then, I like to play with our traditional family recipes just a little bit. My grandmother taught me to make applesauce, but I doubt that she'd ever heard of five-spice powder. Use a mix of apples to give the best flavor, and make sure some are red-skinned, so your applesauce will be beautifully pink. Makes 8-10 servings.
5 pounds apples, cored, stems removed, cut into quarters (leave the skin on)
1/4 tsp five-spice powder
1 Tbsp cinnamon, or more to taste
In a large stockpot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the apple chunks. Cook the apples until just about to turn to mush. Place in a food processor fitted with a metal blade (or put through a ricer) and puree. Transfer to a large bowl, and stir in the spices. Serve warm or cold.
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