Chinese five spice is an ingredient I grew up with without actually knowing I was growing up with it. My chef father made all of his own sauces and spice blends from single ingredients; they were part of recipes with a pinch of this, a tad of that, and no actual measurements beyond ratios eyeballed against the other ingredients.
No wonder, then, that when I started encountering it in recipes as my cooking matured, I found myself asking the question, “What is Chinese five spice? What is this so-called ‘essential’ flavor profile that I’ve never seen in a jar in my parents’ pantry?” I wondered, “Do we even cook like real Chinese people, then?”
After much digging, I found the answer to these questions. Read on, you will, too.
Chinese Five Spice
- A combination of various—not just five—types of spices used in culinary styles across China
- Often found in Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and other contemporary Asian cuisines now
- Typically sold powdered in bottled form
- It can be used as a seasoning, dry rub, seasoned salt, or sauce ingredient
What Is Chinese Five Spice?
Chinese five spice, in principle, is a spice blend that has existed in Chinese culinary history for hundreds of years. Its exact origins are unknown and its composition varies by manufacturer, chef or cook, region, and family. Typically, it’s a blend that includes star anise, cloves, common (Chinese or cassia) cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn, and fennel in ground form in various proportions. It may also include anise seed, ginger root, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, licorice root, or galangal. In Southern China, Mandarin orange peel is a common substitution for cinnamon and cloves, and in the absence of Sichuan peppercorns, white pepper is often tapped in.
Obviously, this means it can add up to a lot more than five spices, but its name actually alludes to the blend’s ability to touch all five taste elements: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and savory, for which we also now use the Japanese term umami. This balance is the entire point of this fragrant deeply reddish-brown spice powder, which is traditionally used as an antiseptic and to assist with digestion,
Chinese Five Spice vs. Seven Spice Powder
To start with, Chinese five spice is Chinese in origin. Seven spice powder is Japanese, and also called shichimi togarashi. Unlike Five Spice, Seven spice’s foundation is comprised of chilis, dried orange peel, sesame seed, dried ginger, and seaweed, as well as Sichuan peppercorns. This is untoasted and typically used as a topping or finishing spice for grilled meats, rice, soups, and noodle dishes, while five spice is toasted before grinding and incorporated directly into recipes.
Varieties of and Substitutes for Chinese Five Spice
As mentioned, Chinese five spice can vary greatly depending on who’s putting it together. Family and regional recipes can run the gamut from proportions to actual components. In Southern China, Saigon cinnamon and orange peel appear instead of common Chinese/cassia cinnamon and cloves. Sichuan peppercorns have become more accessible as they’ve gained popularity in the States, but white pepper or black peppercorns are also easy swaps.
If a lot of the ingredients you need aren’t on hand, you could use straight-up star anise, since that’s one of the most important and prominent flavors in five spice’s profile. But if you happen to have garam masala and star anise, you’ll fare better. The two Eastern spice blends share fennel, cinnamon, and clove in common, and you’ll get the added flavor punch of caraway seeds and cardamom. Just make sure you add that anise!
Whole vs. Ground Five Spice
Five Spice is a powder—so much so that the Chinese term for it (wu xiang fen 五香粉) includes the word for powder. It’s sold in this form, but if you want to break it down by ingredient, you do have the option to start from whole if you want the biggest impact and have the time and patience. If you prefer, you can certainly toast and pulverize your own star anise, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, and fennel seeds. This will result in the freshest, most powerful aroma and flavor extraction in your custom-mixed powder. The one exception to skipping all the grinding is if you’re braising with it, which will allow the flavors to come out in the low, slow cooking.
Should you choose to make your own Chinese five spice powder, tailoring it to your own flavor preferences, such as lightening up on the star anise or amping up the Sichuan peppercorns, there’s nothing wrong with using the ground version of each spice before combining it.
However, there’s also nothing wrong with trying a few different brands of Chinese five spice powder and letting them do the hard work as you choose a favorite.
What Does Chinese Five Spice Taste Like?
Like its name implies, its flavor touches on every spectrum of taste. It’s sweet but also earthy, spicy but also cooling, and strongly aromatic. The licorice flavor of the star anise comes out strong, supported by the fennel seed, which also has a warmth and sweetness to it. However, the cinnamon exhibits both traits more dominantly. It also has a peppery kick to it. How much of that is present depends, of course, on how high of a percentage its pepper makeup is in the blend!
Where to Buy Chinese Five Spice
As Asian food continues to trend upward and authentic Chinese cuisine becomes more commonplace, Chinese five spice has also become more available to casual home cooks. You can now buy premixed Chinese five spice in small jars or bottles in most national chain grocery store spice aisles, even with exclusively organic spices or under major name-brand labels. At Asian markets, where it’ll likely be significantly cheaper, it’ll look less upmarket and may be packaged unconventionally, like in a plastic tub or even a clear plastic bag. With these, just make sure you repackage it at home to keep it fresh. As with all spices and herbs, airtight glass is best.
You can also buy the individual spices, ground or whole, to make your own proprietary blend.
How to Make Your Own Chinese Five Spice
If you are using whole spices, you’ll want to first toast the whole pieces of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, peppercorn, and fennel seeds on a dry pan on the stovetop, stirring or shaking occasionally, on medium-low heat until they’re fragrant. Let it cool, then reduce it to powder using a spice grinder, coffee grinder, or food processor or blender on a very fine setting.
If you’re starting from pre-ground spices, try to buy the roasted version of the ingredients such as fennel seeds if available. But it’s no big deal if you can’t find this less common form of the ingredients. You can toast your blend in powdered form, or skip it if you don’t mind losing that slightly smoky element. Then just blend them in the proportion that best suits you and store it in a sealed container away from moisture, light, and heat.
How to Prep and Cook with Chinese Five Spice
Chinese five spice is an incredibly versatile ingredient, as illustrated by its ubiquity. And because it incorporates nearly every sense of taste, it works well with a wide variety of cooking techniques.
You can use it as a spice rub for grilled, roasted, or baked meats or vegetables, or add it to a sauce that can be poured over or stir-fried with anything. You can incorporate it into breading or mix it with a liquid to create a marinade. You can braise with the whole spices for visual appeal, or the powder for ease.
Braising is actually one of the most culturally important ways Chinese five spice is used, as this seasoning blend is what gives Chinese “red cooking” its distinctive scarlet-tinged, deep brown color as well as flavor. You may have heard “red cooking” alternatively called Chinese stewing, red stewing, red braising, or flavor potting. If you’ve ever had Cantonese pork belly, Peking duck, char siu barbeque pork, and other Hong Kong specialties, you’ve experienced it. And if you’ve had dishes from Northern, Eastern, and Southeastern China, it’s more than likely you’ve tried it in other regional renditions, too.
But don’t limit your use to traditional applications! Experiment freely and you might be delighted with the results. For instance, play with five spice in sweet applications and baking; it’s a Simply Recipes editor favorite for a pumpkin spice swap, and or a sugar mix for rolling snickerdoodles in.
The one word of advice we’ll offer is to use it sparingly. It’s powerful and strong, and a little bit goes a long way.
Recipes Made With Chinese Five Spice
Up until recently, Cantonese cuisine was the dominant type of Chinese food in America. This means this region’s comforting, absolutely delicious staples are the ones you may be able to now replicate at home with the help of a jar of Chinese five spice powder. Try a familiar recipe, make a sauce from scratch, or experiment with something new.