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Fennel: The New-old Chinese Spice

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 13, 14, and 16

The fennel seed is considered a newer spice, by Chinese standards, as are anise and black pepper. How new, or even how old, seems open to question. However, in Chinese history, ‘new’ can be hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The length of use is best described as 'indeterminate.' What is known is that fennel does appear in the Tang Dynasty Chinese Materia Medica and the Tang rulers were in power from 618 - 907 CE. Many Chinese are amazed to learn that fennel has been used in their country as long as it has. Yet when you remind them it is a common ingredient in five-spice powder, they reply ‘oh yes, I forgot about it in that common spice mixture.’

This Chinese spice combo is often made of cinnamon, star anise, fennel, ginger, and cloves. But there is no hard and fast rule that there need be five items, nor that those just listed are fixed in stone. Many books and chefs report the spices as one or all of the following in their ground form: Anise seed, black cardamon, Chinese cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel, ginger, Sichuan pepper, and star anise and they add several other items including dried tangerine peel, licorice root, nutmeg, rice powder, even some black pepper. Called xiaohuiiang or simply xiaoui by the Chinese, the fenne plant grows to heights of six feet. The top or head is lacy and flowered. This herbal is grown throughout China, known as Foeniculum vulgare botanically, and pharmacologically called fructus foeniculi. The seeds of the plant, as are most seeds, are technically a fruit. They split in half when ripe and are the main part of the fennel plant consumed in China. There are a few other species of fennel than those just mentioned, but their use is minimal in this country. However, some other parts of any of these items in the Umbelliferae family are used as herbs, but rarely. And fennel’s more distant relatives have many other parts consumed; think of the coriander, carrot, dill, and parsley, they are Umbelliferae, as well.

Graceful, hardy, and very aromatic, this plant is often grown as a perennial, though some varieties are annuals and can be coaxed to be both. Mostly fennel is grown in Southern China. Perhaps that is why only the southern Chinese use the seed frequently. They like the oval-shaped ridged and curved seeds in their long-simmered dishes, and they and you when shopping for them, may notice that they are most often found split and grayish in color. Fresher ones are more likely to be tan. Before buying, smell them. The aroma of licorice needs to waft as you inhale; they taste somewhat similar, as well.

Believed to be pungent, as is garlic, cassia, chili pepper, and every item in the Allium family such as scallion, leek, etc., fennel probably made its way into Chinese cuisine and to other Asian nations during the heavily trafficked days of the Silk Road. That was then. Today it travels a lot less because the four largest sources of this spice are China, India, Egypt, and Turkey.

Not only pungent, but also described as sweet with minor undertones of menthol, fennel was not an early component of five-spice powder. When it became one is not definitive, but by the end of the Tang Dynasty, there are reports of ground spice mixtures with fennel, and in the dynasties that followed, their number increased. Not all were ground, some were whole spice mixtures put in a cloth bag. They were used in stewed foods. Several indicated removing the bag before cooking was completed. Today, good instructions advise removing these packets after an hour or two at most, The reason, the resultant liquid often turns bitter if left cooking longer.

Fennel is a common component of curry mixtures, and these were popular in Macao and southern China long before or at least since the 1600's. What is rarely reported then or now is that some Chinese use the lacy leaves and stems in their cooking. Still, the primary use of this spice is reserved for the dried fruits of the fennel plant, namely for fennel seeds.

In early Chinese medicinal history, fennel seeds were made into a poultice and used as a remedy for snake and scorpion bites. Then and now, TCM Docs or Traditional Chinese Medicinal practitioners warned about their consumption advising patients not to ingest too many. Why, because they cause considerable flatulence and burping. They spoke of value though, even with these effects, in balancing Qi. This was of value to those with a hernia or pain in the groin, also for those with cold in the stomach and vomiting due to excess cold in the mid-section. TCM doctors believe fennel enters the liver, kidney, stomach, and spleen channels, impacts liver Qi, warms the kidneys, and expels cold.

Helping these seeds to relieve pain, when coarsely ground, they are used as a compress on the stomach. Fennel is also used in a decoction as an expectorant, a laxative, and for relief from spasmodic problems. But remember, it is used in small quantities. Of interest is the fact that TCM believers also give fennel to new mothers, made as a drink and often mixed with cinnamon to stimulate their milk production. To everyone, they recommend it to reduce head colds, relieve coughs, and stop hiccups, and as a warm compress to reduce pain from earaches. Fennel is a weak diuretic and a mild stimulant. That said, one can understand why TCM practitioners always say to take any remedy that includes this spice, early in the morning.

Aside from cooking and medicinal usage already discussed, the Chinese believe that fennel increases strength, is of value when wanting to reduce the body weight of overly obese women, and they give it to the elderly to increase longevity.

Fennel oil is not a replacement for fennel seeds in cooking nor should it be used in decoctions. Touching it can cause contact dermatitis. In addition, TCM practitioners advise that it should be avoided in any form nor should it be used in any decoction by pregnant women because it is a uterine stimulant. Not pregnant, there are many culinary uses for fennel. Here are but a few. Enjoy!
Bean Curd Soup
2 dried scallops, soaked for three hours
3 dried cloud-ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for ten minutes, then cut in thin strips
3 dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in warm water for ten minutes, then cut into thin strips
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1 dried hot red pepper, seeds removed
1 long Chinese cruller, cut into half-inch slices
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon water chestnut flour
2 slices fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
1 teaspoon coarsely ground fennel
1 square firm bean curd, cut into half-inch slices
1 Tablespoon white rice wine
1 Tablespoon black vinegar
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
dash ground white pepper
1. Steam dried scallop for half an hour, remove and tear into shreds, and mix with the scallop shreds.
2. Heat both oils and fry hot pepper for half to one minute, depending on how piquant you want the soup to be, then discard the pepper.
3. Fry cruller slices until lightly browned, then drain and set aside on paper towels.
4. Mix egg with water chestnut flour, then fry, turning it once. When lightly set, remove and cut into thin slices.
5. Fry ginger and fennel for one minute, add bean curd and fry for another minute.
6. Add four cups water, the rice wine, vinegar, and soy sauce and bring to just below the boil, then add all reserved ingredients and the ground pepper but not the cruller slices. Reduce the heat, and simmer for ten minutes, add cruller slices, then serve.
Imperial Chicken
1 whole three to four pound chicken
1 large knob fresh ginger, slivered thin
1/4 cup small dried shrimp
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
4 star anise
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper or coarsely ground white peppercorns
1 cup Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon sacha or XO sauce
1/4 cup cold tea or chicken broth
1. Bring large pot of water to the boil, insert chicken and add more boiling water to cover. Return water to the boil, tightly cover the pot, turn off the heat and allow to sit for forty minutes. Then remove chicken and when cool, chop into serving pieces. Strain the soup and reserve for another purpose.
2. Bring ginger, shrimps, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seeds, pepper, and two cups of water to the boil. Simmer for five minutes, then pour over chicken pieces and marinate for two hours in the refrigerator, periodically spooning the liquid over the chicken, if needed.
3. Remove the chicken and serve with the mixture of sacha sauce and tea as a dipping sauce.
Lamb Chops and Fennel
4 loin lamb chops
1/4 cup Chinese rice wine
1/2 teaspoon green tea powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon barbecue sauce
2 Tablespoons fennel seeds
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Marinate lamb chops in a mixture of rice wine, tea powder, salt, sugar, the teaspoon of cornstarch, and the barbecue sauce for half an hour.
2. Heat pan, add the oil, and them remove each chop, drain, and sprinkle with the fennel seeds before putting them into the hot oil. Fry for two minutes, turn over and fry the other side, also for two minutes or until desired doneness. Then remove to a heated platter.
3. Mix broth and cornstarch, bring to the boil and stir for one minute. Then pour over the lamb chops, and serve.
Fennel-flavored Fish
1 whole flat fish, about a pound to pound and a half
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons oil, divided in two
1 Tablespoon Smithfield-type ham, slivered
2 Tablespoons cloud ear fungi, soaked half an hour, drained and then slivered
2 Chinese mushrooms, soaked half an hour, drained and then slivered
2 Tablespoons dried tiger lily flowers, soaked half an hour, drained and then slivered
2 sliced fresh ginger, peeled and slivered
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Rub clean, scale, and gut the fish, rinse then dry with paper towels.
2. Mix salt, ground fennel, and teaspoon of cornstarch and rub fish inside and out.
3. Oil a plate and put fish on it and steam it over boiling water for eight minutes, then remove to a heated serving plate.
4. While fish is steaming, in a wok or pan heat second half of the oil and stir-fry ham, cloud ear fungi, black mushrooms, tiger lily slivers, and the ginger for two or three minutes. Then add cornstarch mixture. When thickened, pour over the fish and serve.

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