Simon Day learns about the history and power of Chinese five-spice.
Both the origins of Chinese five-spice and the flavour itself are a little mysterious. My internet investigations revealed the powder’s name could be in reference to the use of five spices (although this often grows to six or seven), or it could refer to the five elements of Chinese medicine and how the powder seeks to balance those elements. It could also come from the way the combination seeks to touch all five elements of taste: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami.
Fragrant and rich, five-spice adds layers of depth to your cooking. It can be used in stocks and marinades, as a backbone to beef broths, as rubs for duck and chicken, and as the base for braising fatty meats (see the recipe below for slow-cooked five-spice pork shoulder).
To understand more about the mysterious power of five-spice I went to King Beef Noodle on Dominion Road, where jars of whole spices lined the wall, to meet with artist Ruby White, the former owner of Small Fry cafe at Te Tuhi gallery in Pakuranga, south-east Auckland. We shared a giant bowl of the signature beef noodles – a rich soup full of chunks of tender beef and thick, wide noodles – and the dumplings in spicy sauce. Both were built on a base of five-spice, the broth strong and aromatic, almost medicinal, while the dumplings were dressed in a sweet and spicy sauce. It was the perfect remedy to another wet, wintry Auckland day.
White, who was born in Australia, has used cooking to explore her Chinese-Malaysian heritage. She travelled through Asia, learning her family’s traditional noodle-making techniques in Malaysia, exploring the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China, and discovering regional foods and peeking into the vast diversity of China’s cuisine. She then returned to New Zealand (which she’s called home since she was 17) to share these authentic methods and flavours. Over lunch, she told me about the power of five-spice and shared some tips on how to best use it.
Why is five-spice a special ingredient?
For me, it’s the story of five-spice that makes it special – Chinese culture places strong importance on the relationships between food, medicine and health. It’s believed that each of the five spices represents one of the elements (earth, water, fire, wood, metal) which are manifested in different parts of the body as well as flavour profiles (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and the funk). Overall the spices are thought to encourage both appetite and blood circulation.
What are the five spices in five-spice? Why are those five spices such complementary flavours?
Star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves and fennel is the common five spice combination, but it’s not uncommon to see additional aromatics added to the mix, such as cassia, galangal, ginger, liquorice, mandarin peel or nutmeg. These spices work together well due to their yang (warming) properties. Yin and yang is a philosophy that’s deeply entrenched in the backbone of Chinese culture. It’s all about balance – in cooking, yin represents cool/cold and yang warm/hot. It has nothing to do with temperature or perceived taste of ingredients, but its effect on the body.
What does the five-spice flavour contribute to food?
Five-spice can be harnessed to quickly add depth and complexity to a dish. Due to its aromatic profile, it can be used to provide a generic “Asianness” to food.
How do you use it in your cooking?
I find that it pairs best with “strong” meats. By strong I mean smelly – beef, pork, lamb and some fish. The aromatics of five-spice help to equalise the pungency of the meat. I also use it a lot in marinades and actually love using it in my spaghetti bolognese – the fragrance adds a deep richness and complements the beef and red wine perfectly. I also love five spice in bone broths, noodle soups and dipping sauces for meats and dumplings.
Any tips for how to best use it?
I personally find that five-spice can be a really overpowering flavour if you use too much of it, so just keep in mind that a little goes a long way. As with all spices, definitely toast it in a pan before using.
FIVE SPICE PORK SHOULDER IN CHINESE PANCAKES
Drew Cruickshank from Freedom Farms shared this recipe, based on his favourite recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book The River Cottage Meat Book. It involves making your own five-spice powder – you’ll notice the superiority to the packet spice from the supermarket.
The fragrant aromatics cut through the delicious fatty meat which will be moist and tender after hours in the oven. The best way to serve the pork is in fried Chinese pancakes, the recipe below is adapted from The Spruce Eats website.
1 whole Freedom Farms pork shoulder, bone in (5-8kg)
5 cloves garlic, peeled
5cm piece fresh ginger, peeled
2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon flaky salt
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
For the five spice mix
2 whole star anise
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
½ cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
For the Chinese pancakes
2 cups flour
1 cup boiling water
50ml sesame oil
½ red cabbage
Preheat the oven to 230°C.
Score the skin of the pork shoulder with a really sharp knife in parallel lines about 1cm apart, to a depth of 5-10mm.
Grate the garlic and fresh ginger into a small bowl and mix to a paste with the chilli flakes, ground ginger, sugar, salt, oil and soy sauce. The back of a spoon works well for this.
Pound the five spices to a powder with a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder if you have one… please don’t sub for your coffee grinder though, that’ll make for a bad time). Add 1 tablespoon to the paste (and store the rest in an airtight container for future use). If grinding your own five spice is too daunting, the Gregg’s Chinese Five Spice in a cardboard box contains star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and ginger… it’s an OK substitute, but won’t be as good as doing it yourself.
Place the pork shoulder, skin side up, on a rack in a large roasting pan. If your roasting pan didn’t come with a rack, a wire cake rack in the pan will work just fine.
Smear half the spice paste over the top half of the pork, using your fingertips to work it into the scores of the skin. Put the pork in the very hot oven for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven and very carefully flip the pork over.
Using a spoon (the meat will be very hot), smear the remainder of the spice paste over the underside, which is now facing up. Pour a glass of water into the roasting pan, turn the oven down to 110°C and pop the meat back into the oven.
Leave to cook for anywhere between 16 to 24 hours, flipping the meat back over about half way through cooking and basting with the fat and juices in the pan. About 45 minutes before finishing, crank the heat back up to 230°C to get the crackling super crispy – keeping a very close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn.
While the pork cooks, finely slice the cabbage and roughly chop the coriander into a coleslaw.
To make the pancakes, in a large mixing bowl, pour the boiling water into the flour and immediately stir the mix together. Knead the warm dough until you have a smooth ball. Cover the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes.
Turn out the rested dough out onto a floured surface and cut it in half. Use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll each half out until it is about 1/2cm thick. Use a small bowl as a mould to cut out circles of dough.
Brush one side of the pancakes with sesame oil and lay one pancake on top of another with the oiled sides together. Roll the dual pancakes until they’re twice the diameter. Use a damp towel to cover the prepared pancakes and keep them from drying out.
Heat a heavy frying pan over low heat. Add one of the pancake pairs, and cook until browned on both sides (about 3 minutes altogether; the second side will cook more quickly than the first side). Remove the paired pancakes from the pan, and pull them apart. Continue with the remainder of the pancakes. Serve immediately.
To serve the pork, remove the crackled skin and break up into pieces. Scoop the tender meat on to the Chinese pancakes with a clump of red cabbage coleslaw. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and pieces of crackling.
This content was created in paid partnership with Freedom Farms. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.