What Is Five-Spice Powder? And How to Make It
Here, all the basics, including what’s in five spice powder and how to use it.
By Clarissa Wei for Food Network Kitchen
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.
What Is Five-Spice Powder?
Five-spice powder is a Chinese all-purpose seasoning blend with flavor that embodies all five tastes – saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and savoriness.
Spices In Five-Spice Powder
The five spices are usually a blend of the following:
- Cinnamon: You're probably familiar with this baking spice, which comes from the bark of small evergreen trees. It is sweet with a spicy undertone.
- Sichuan peppercorn: The dried red berries of the prickly ash tree native to China, this spice has a hot and spicy flavor with citrus overtones.
- Star anise: The dried, star-shaped fruit of the Chinese magnolia tree. The flavor is similar to anise seeds (although they actually aren’t related), but star anise is more bitter and pungent.
- Fennel: The flavor is similar to anise, but not as sweet.
- Cloves: The unopened buds of evergreen trees that can be found in tropical regions. They are very pungent and sweet.
While the term five-spice implies that there are five spices, the formulation can often include more than that. Sometimes tangerine peels, cardamom, and licorice are added in for extra oomph. There’s no set formulation, but the common denominator is that they are all ingredients that exude warmth and coziness.
“All of them are actually used in Chinese medicine as medicinal ingredients,” says Zoey Xinyi Gong, a traditional Chinese food therapist and cookbook author. “They warm the body and promote digestion. They activate Qi to flow more smoothly and actively. Most of these spices have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial functions too.“
What Is Five-Spice Powder Used For?
Five-spice is most commonly used as a marinade that’s particularly great rubbed over pork and poultry. Usually mixed with other seasonings and condiments, it’s what lends both deep-fried Taiwanese popcorn chicken and Hong Kong char siu pork their sweet and earthy flavor. Jet Tila's recipe for Char Siu is pictured above. The spice mix pairs especially well with fatty meats.
It’s also fantastic for braises and soups. Instead of throwing in whole chunks of spices, a generous sprinkle of five-spice powder usually does the trick. Gong also recommends it for making tea eggs: just simmer some peeled hardboiled eggs and tea leaves in a concoction with water, soy sauce, sugar and five-spice.
A Recipe for Five-Spice Powder
Recipes really differ depending on preference, but the general rule of thumb is to frontload the star anise and go easy on the cloves.
2 tablespoons ground star anise
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon ground Chinese cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon cloves
Stir all the ingredients together and store in an airtight container until ready for use.
Five-Spice Powder Substitutes
The best replacement for five-spice powder is a spice mix with similar flavor profiles. Garam masala, an Indian spice mix which contains cumin, coriander, cardamon, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is a good alternative, though it lacks signature punch of star anise. Allspice, a mixture of clove, black pepper, and cinnamon, is another apt substitute.
For something a bit more simplistic, whole pods of star anise will work just finely.