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Five Spice Magic

by Eva Koveos

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 5 and 6


For as long as I can remember, I can not cook without fumbling through the cupboard for some sort of spice. My memory advises that I have always enjoyed the unique experience of sampling a new herb or spice. The distinct flavors and aromas of each offer so many interesting and delicious culinary combinations, that I can not resist experimenting. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, to anyone who knows me that I should investigate a Chinese exotic spice mixture.

The Far East is popular for many different herb and spice blends, all intensely aromatic and with distinct, bold flavors. The Japanese employ shichimi togarashi, a seven-spice mix, most as a table condiment, and in a Thai restaurant you can experience a fiercely hot red curry paste. But for Flavor and Fortune, I want to explore the flavors and ingredients of an intense and unforgettable combination, typical of Chinese cookery.

Five spice Powder is an ancient spice blend that almost always consists of star anise, Sichuan (Szechwan) peppercorns, fennel, cinnamon and cloves. Originally concocted for medicinal properties and potency, it was later adopted by the Chinese kitchen. Now it is part of their culinary habit, particularly in Southern China.

The number of spices in this powdered mix often exceeds five, some versions containing cardamom, licorice root and even ginger; some use cassia instead of cinnamon, but the traditional version contains five ingredients. Why five; because the number is of great significance, possessing symbolic power according to ancient Chinese lore. It was and still is thought, even believed, that the universe was/is composed of five elements: earth, wood, fire, metal and water. The harmonious blending of elements was emphasized in this philosophy and great care had to be taken when mixing them or anything. These kinds of thoughts became incorporated into the daily way of thinking; one result is five spice powder.

Typically, in culinary usage, five spice powder is used to flavor marinades, season meats and poultry, and as a dipping salt. For an authentic flavor, when I buy the mix from Oriental markets, I prefer the finer grind over the coarse because it is more aromatic (characterized by a woodsy fragrance), lighter in color (ranging from tan to gingery-brown), and gives foods a well-balanced flavor. I store it in a dry, airtight container away from light and moisture; this give it a longer shelf life. For purists, you and I can mix our own from the following:

Cinnamon: When I think of cinnamon, Iam reminded of a cold winter's day, spent on my couch under a blanket watching the snow fall. I'm warmed by the sweet and soothing flavors of a freshly made rice pudding--piping hot and dressed with a layer of cinnamon. I can not resist adding a little or a lot of it to everything I cook; cinnamon is one of my favorite 'sweet' spices or so I thought until I realized I was adding cassia to everything from muffins to rice pudding.

Cinnamon can be (Cinnamomum cassia) or cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum). They are both members of the laurel family, and often confused one for the other. They look almost identical aside from minor differences in color, flavor and aroma. How to tell them apart? Cinnamon has a lighter color than cassia, more tan than the dark reddish-brown hues of cassia-like the one found in my cupboard. Cassia is also more fragrant with an intense flavor--sort of bitter when compared to the sweet and delicate flavors and aroma of cinnamon.

Cinnamon is derived from the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. The spice is actually tree bark that has been rolled into quills peeled from the lower branches of the tree. Cinnamon can be found in ground form, as quills and as an oil. The leaves, fruit and roots of the plant are extracted into the oil which was once used to make candles for the King of Ceylon and now more widely used in food processing. Cinnamon has also been taken to relieve gas, nausea, and colds. The Chinese use it mostly in braised dishes and of course it is an essential ingredient in the five spice mix.

Cassia is one of the first recorded spices in Chinese cookery, used as long ago as 2,799 BCE. It is often referred to as 'Chinese cinnamon.' It can be found as bark, in ground form, and as oil or buds. Some countries use the dried leaves or 'senna' as a laxative; this is not advised as it can cause violent purging. The Chinese often use ground cassia in place of cinnamon when making five spice mixtures, they use the buds to flavor candy for a cinnamon quality. Whole it is used to flavor sauces and braised dishes.

Star Anise: The dominating flavor of five spice powder is star anise, without this important ingredient the mix just wouldn't be the same. Its sweet, licorice-like flavor brings to mind spices of the anise family. Ironically enough, there is no relation because star anise comes from an evergreen tree of the magnolia family. It can grow up to nine feet in height and bears pretty eight-pointed fruit resembling stars. Left whole, it adds an attractive look to any dish.

The Latin name of this anise-flavored spice, Illicium verum, stems from the word 'illicium' meaning allurement and is most likely referring to the pleasant smell given off by the flowers. The spice can be found whole, broken, ground, as seeds, or an oil. As the oil, it has been used to treat children's stomach problems (colic), and rheumatism, and is said to be mildly sleep-inducing. In the West, we use it as a flavoring agent for licorice, gums, cough medicines, and liqueurs. Star anise can be found in the Southeastern part of the United States, but it is predominantly grown in Asia, particularly in southern China. The Chinese often refer to it as Chinese or whole anise; they use it to season foods, as a marinade for stews, and in meat and poultry dishes.

Fennel: Fennel is often seen as a symbol of strength and valor--perhaps that is why our ancestors hung fennel on their doors to ward off the evils of witchcraft. Now, we have somewhat limited its use to the kitchen, although many cultures still use it medicinally. Known to the Chinese as wooi heung, it is yet another key ingredient of five spice powder. It possesses a sweet, licorice-like flavor not unlike star anise; but it is not quite as potent.

Fennel is Foeniculum vulgare, its Latin name. It is a perennial plant with fragrant leaves, and flowers. Once the leaves have dried, the cluster of seeds are then picked and left whole as oblong green, yellowish-brown items. They can used whole or ground into a fine tan colored powder. hey can also be extracted into a clear-colored oil; this is often used in the manufacturing of soaps and perfumes. The leaves and seeds flavor oils, candy, medicine, and some of my favorite liqueurs, as well as foods.

Over the years, fennel was believed to strengthen eyesight; and the Chinese have used it to remedy stomach maladies. They also have used it to treat snake and scorpion bites. In Chinese cuisine, it can be found in stews and braised dishes, and is used in a process that originated in Western China called tea-smoking. Here the dual purpose is to preserve and flavor foods.

Sichuan Peppercorns: These peppercorns, Zanthoxylum simulans, are the red-brown berries of the prickly ash tree. This ancient spice goes by many names including fagara, anise pepper, Chinese pepper, wild pepper, and even flowery or flower pepper. It is available whole, as seeds that resemble little flower buds opening, and when ground it is a light brown powder. Most often found in Sichuan cooking, one also finds them used in other parts of China. Once a standard table condiment in China, fagara is now typically used to season meats and poultry, or in marinades and sauces. The result is a woodsy, aromatic flavor. In ancient China, this spice was used to cure dysentery; and in the eighth century, it was served to the Emperor Te Tsung along with clotted cream.

Cloves: As an inquisitive child does, I would always poke around the kitchen come time for my mother to cook, requesting little nibbles of everything she made. With my meddling, came the occasional kitchen disaster--you could imagine! My mom was never really amused with my inspection of our kitchen gadgets either, but my curiosity did get the better of me on a few occasions such as in 'The Clove Incident.'

My mom's mistake was to leave an open jar of what looked like small, strange-looking, nail-shaped chocolates on the table. That day, I learned more than I needed to know about cloves. They taste nothing like chocolate--in fact, they are awfully bitter (I do not recommend biting into them), and they are a pain to gather off the floor. Only recently did my curiosity for cloves surface once again.

Cloves are actually the dried, unopened flower buds of the myrtle tree native to the Moluccas (Spice Islands). The brown, nail-shaped spice gets its sharp, bitter flavor from the oil of phenol it contains. This contributes to the fragrant odor of cloves. Their use dates back to the third century BCE. I think it fascinating to learn that Chinese officers of the state were required to have them in their mouth when addressing the Emperor. The rationale given was that they keep the breath fresh and sweet-smelling.

Medicinally, they were used as an antiseptic and were believed to cure toothaches and indigestion. Nowadays, they are chiefly used in cooking, particularly in desserts and savory dishes; they are also used in pomander and to scent soaps. Cloves are available whole, ground (as a dark brown powder), and as an oil.

Overall, five-spice powder has many ancient uses, even newer and more modern ones. For example, on a recent food-shopping trip, I stumbled across some flavored tofu made by the Nasoya Foods company. One of their items was called Five Spice Tofu. I was surprised to learn later that these Nasoya products were introduced to the marketplace in 1987. I had never seen them at my local market, though it usually carries a wide variety of tofu. On a recent, while writing this article, they caught my eye and I decided to try them. I thought the product fairly good, especially in a stir-fry dish where it lends its flavor to the other ingredients. If you feel like experimenting with something different, give five spice powder a try alone or in a mixed dish such as this one. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
_____
Eva Koveos works for the Hearst magazine Good Housekeeping, and has written other featured ingredient articles for Flavor and Fortune. Want to know about something, just ask Eva!

                                                                                                                                                       
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