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Doctrine of Five Flavors, The

by S.K. Wertz

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 12 and 13

The doctrine of the five flavors has a long and distinguished history in Chinese food culture. The four of the five flavors are: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These elements of taste are recognized by the science of taste in the West. To the Chinese there is an additional flavor, one most often called 'spicy.' This is 'hot' as in 'heat' meaning as the Spanish would say, picante. It is not temperature-hot matching their word caliente.

Tradition has it that the sage I Yin who lived during the time of the Xia Dynasty, circa 21st – 16th centuries BCE, spoke of the importance of these five flavors. By the 4th century BCE, this five flavor concept appears firmly entrenched in Chinese cuisine. No doubt it continued during the Zhou Dynasty (12th century BCE to 221 BCE).

By the 3rd century BCE, the five flavor concept was already subject to philosophical debate. Taoists said that the five flavors jade the palate or cause one not to taste. What they probably had in mind were elitist or Confucian elaborate feasts, because at them, the five flavors were exemplified by rare and expensive foods. Taoists only wanted simple natural foods. They wanted plain bland flavors, such as steamed rice, chicken congee, or other congees.

What these early dishes and their recipes used in the five flavors seem lost in the annals of history. The oldest recipe I did find seems to come from the Tang Dynasty, around 800 CE and it is for a pork roast. It, and all recipes presented in this article, are rewritten in the recipe style of this magazine.

In that Five Flavors Pork Roast recipe below, the five flavors are represented in the ingredients. This recipe is unusual and is an exception, as would be one for Peking Duck. One does not find many recipes for large pieces of meat because it is primarily used, in the Chinese culinary, as a flavor enhancer rather than as a main dish item. Except for the first recipes, those after it are all contemporary. Famous celebrity chef, Martin Yan, has two recipes that utilize five flavors. The first is an appetizer using chicken wings; the second is for pork chops. They, too, are below and rewritten and adjusted in the style of other recipes in this magazine.

These recipes and others for five flavor dishes are among many things in the Chinese landscape that come in groups of five. There is the five-spice powder made up of cinnamon, star anise, fennel, clove, ginger, licorice, Sichuan pepper, and white pepper. Actually there are often eight spices or any combination of those associated with the five flavors. And all, but the last recipe use five-spice powder. Indeed, five-spice powder does encompass the five flavors, but they are not the same. The five flavors are much broader in the taste range and to equate the two is too restrictive because such an equation limits the flavors to substances. In actual fact, Chinese five-spice powder is closer to five fragrances rather than flavors.

Chinese cuisine, as it is known today, derives from classical combinations of the five flavors, but its vocabulary is grossly inadequate to describe the full range of the Chinese culinary. However, when one examines Chinese cookbooks, one finds very few references to the doctrine of five flavors.

The recipes for specific dishes using the five flavors are all we found in Chinese gastronomy. This strongly suggests that the five flavors are not the focus of one dish, but rather are spread over several dishes or an entire meal. The fan-cai principle that governs meals can be seen as divisions contributing to the five flavors, some flavors are in the fan or grains and other starches, and others are in the cai or vegetable and meat category. Assuming this the case, the five flavors can easily be achieved in an endless variety of ways. The chart provided shows how various fruits, vegetables, spices, and food products such as sauces exemplify a given flavor.

In some cases, the five flavors can not balance themselves; they need something else to harmonize with them, like tea. The use of the five colors with five flavor dishes testifies to this point. An issue raised here could be sufficiency versus insufficiency. In other words, most of the discussion of the five flavors seems to take them as sufficient in themselves for harmonizing or balancing a dish or a meal. To assist the five flavors are the five colors—they parallel each other. They are: spicy-white, sweet-yellow, sour-green, bitter-red, and salty-black. If a particular flavor is subtle, then its corresponding color can be used in the presentation to help suggest that flavor to the diner. Of course, Taoists object to the five colors too, so this parallel is not an option for them.

As the Taoists have done, the five flavors can be viewed as irrelevant or unnecessary vis-a-vis cooking and eating. Wang's commentary, in the 3rd century CE about the Tao Te Ching is instructive here: The mouth or the palate should comply [shun] with its own character [xing]. When one does not use it in compliance with its character and individual capacity [ming], he or she thus perversely harms what it is by nature [ziran]. This is why Taoists characterize it as the five flavors harm the mouth's (or the palate's) nature. Why? Because, it is following convention rather than nature.

Is theirs a good argument; I do not think so. The five flavors are natural, that is found in nature and commonplace. They should be compatible with the mouth's character [xing]. It is what is done with the five flavors that determines whether they are natural or conventional.

It is worth mentioning here the metaphoric connection with the usage of 'five.' That is, the adjective 'five' may refer to not only the five flavors, but also 'many' flavors, or an excessive number (hence confusion) of flavors. The repeated use of 'five,' or another number (like 'three' or 'seven'), is often a literary device in Chinese prose, as well. For the Taoists, there is a confusion that results from an excessive number of flavors. The Tao has no flavor, because it contains all flavors, thus differentiation is inferior. The source of Tao is 'wu,' nothingness or void, thus even any individuation or manifestation is inferior.

Thus, the Taoists are the antithesis of gastronomy. The gastronome is to practice a craft to be able to make fine discriminations on the palate and reach a high degree of refinement. The Taoists find taste in the tasteless, a paradoxical idea at best. In other words, Taoists find taste in what others find tasteless. Interesting.

Black pepper
Chili peppers
Sichuan pepper

Bell Peppers
Hoisin sauce
Garlic-cooked Dates
Bing Cherries

Bitter melon-fresh
Rice vinegar
Dry wine
Wild cherries

Bitter melon-ripe
Seville orange
Soy sauce-thin
Star anise
Dry mustard
Mustard Greens

Soy sauce-regular

The above listing is incomplete, so do feel free to extend it. Peaches, for instance, would go under 'sweet' while tomatoes can be sweet and also go there. However, because of their acidity they should also be placed under 'bitter.' In looking over the chart, there are certain 'classic' combinations including: ginger, sherry, lemon or rice vinegar, star anise, and regular soy sauce. Many of these are combined intuitively. Some combinations including those that involve hoisin sauce, regular soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, rice vinegar, and star anise are uniquely associated with Chinese cuisine. Do sense that the doctrine of 'five flavors' is a cornerstone of Chinese gastronomy.

When using the chart above, or the recipes below, note that there is some overlap among the flavors or tastes.
S.K. Wertz lives outside Weatherford, TX on twelve acres and raises miniature donkeys. He is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and has written several pieces that interface food and philosophy. A more detailed version of this paper was published in Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East in November 2007. Wertz is currently working on a book that combines these areas; we look forward to its publication.
Five Flavors Roast Pork
1/2 teaspoon five-Spice powder
1/2 cup regular soy sauce, not a low sodium variety
1 cup red wine
1 medium clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper, ground
3 pounds boneless pork loin
1. Combine the five spice powder, soy sauce, red wine, garlic, ginger, and the Sichuan pepper for the marinade. Add the pork loin and the marinade, cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. and roast the pork in the marinade for one and a half hours or until it reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees F. Baste it often. When done, slice it and serve.
Note: One can add one or two tablespoons of a thickening agent such as cornstarch or arrowroot mixed with a like amount to cold water. Mix this with the remaining marinade making a sauce, bring it to the boil stirring, and serve it over the slices of meat.
Five Flavors Chicken
3 and 3/4 to 4 pounds chicken pieces
1 (1 and 1/4-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup honey
3 Tablespoons dry sherry, mirin (sweet sake wine), or gin
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup rice, steamed rice
1. Trim tips off wings and discard them or reserve for making a soup. Then pull the skin off the other pieces of chicken.
2. Mix ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, and the dry sherry. Dip each piece of chicken into this sauce.
3. Put the chicken in a crockpot and pour the remaining sauce over it; then cook it at a low temperature. The wings will be ready in about five hours, the other pieces of chicken in about six hours. Should you use high heat, the wings will take about two-and-a-half hours, the rest of the chicken about three hours. When done, remove the chicken to a pre-warmed serving dish.
4. Pour any juices into a skillet. Blend the cornstarch with a tablespoon of cool water, then whisk iit into the juices in the skillet and cook stirring until thickened.
5. Adjust seasonings, if desired, with sea salt and black pepper, and pour a little sauce over some rice and chicken for each person. Pour the remaining sauce in pitcher, and serve.
Five-flavors Honey Wings
8 whole chicken wings
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 scallion, sliced
2 Tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
3/4 cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
2 teaspoons honey
1. Separate the chicken wings into sections, reserve the tips for other uses or discard them.
2. Combine the oyster sauce and cornstarch in a bowl. Then add the chicken and stir to coat. Let this stand for fifteen minutes.
3. Place a wok or wide frying pan over high heat until hot, then add the oil, swirling to coat the sides before adding the chicken. Cook it, turning several times, until golden brown, about three minutes.
4. Then add the scallion, garlic, and pepper flakes; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about ten seconds.
5. Add the chicken stock, soy sauce, rice wine, and five-spice powder and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender when pierced, about twelve minutes.
6. Increase the heat to high, add the honey, and cook until the chicken is well glazed. Then serve.
Mandarin Five-flavor Boneless Pork Chops
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 pound (4½-inch-thick) boneless pork chop
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped onions
1 minced fresh small red Thai chili pepper (about half-teaspoon)
1. In a shallow bowl make a marinade combining soy sauce, sherry, cornstarch, and the five-spice powder.
2. Put the pork on a cutting board, and using the blunt side of a cleaver blade or a meat pounder, lightly pound it in a crisscross pattern. Turn the pork over and repeat this process; it tenderizes the meat.
3. Add the pork to the marinade, coating both sides well, and marinate for thirty minutes. Then shake any excess marinade off and put the meat on a plate. Gently pat it dry with paper towels.
4. Add half cup of cold water to the remaining marinade and set aside.
5. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within one or two seconds. Swirl in the oil, then carefully add the pork, and sear it one minute per side before adding the ginger, garlic, celery, onions, and the chili pepper and cook this stirring it for fifteen seconds.
6. Next, stir in the remaining marinade and swirl it into the wok bringing it to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for thirty minutes or until the meat is fork tender, turning the pork over midway through this cooking. Do check it as it cooks, adding two or three tablespoons of water if the sauce seems too thick.

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