Chinese five-spice powder doesn’t include five spices. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to. And what those spices are—well, that’s up to you. Curious? Let’s scan the cookbook shelf to learn more:
Joyce Chen Cook Book, Joyce Chen: “This is a group of spices which are ground together into a powder. There are anise seed, cinnamon, licorice, clove, ginger, nutmeg, etc. The mixture is used in dishes requiring strong spice.” The key word here: etc!
Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop: “Whole spices may…be roasted and ground to make ‘five-spice’ combinations.” Very vague, Fuchsia. Even mysterious. She gives a shoutout to cassia bark (cinnamon’s first cousin), star anise, and Sichuan pepper as her Chinese pantry staples.
101 Easy Asian Recipes, Peter Meehan and the editors at Lucky Peach: “Cinnamon and star anise are the flavors that ride out front of most five-spice blends, cloves and fennel seed trailing behind, and peppercorns (sometimes Sichuan) in the rear, never really detectable.” Okay, okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The Joy of Cooking (75th anniversary edition), Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker: “The mix sometimes contains cardamom or ginger.” Hm! And yet, Joy’s recipe uses the five spices mentioned above—calling for equal amounts of each.
The Gourmet Cookbook, Ruth Reichl: “There is neither a set formula for the composition of five-spice powder nor a limit to the number of its components.” Her recipe rebels with six spices, by doubling down on Sichuan and black pepper.
And Sichuan-born, New Orleans-raised HelloMyDumpling blogger Jenny Huang includes even more ingredients than Reichl: eight, to be exact. In 2016, we challenged her to a BLT-off, which inspired her five-spice bacon. The blend calls for: coriander, cumin, black and Sichuan pepper, allspice, star anise, dried chilies, and cinnamon.
All of which goes to show just how flexible five-spice is—a blend that stretches and bends with its application. Whether you buy a jar—available in many supermarkets—or make your own mix, five-spice is as punchy as it is cozy, as floral as it is earthy, as sassy as it is agreeable. A real chameleon! It gets a lot of credit for being great on roasted meat—and yes, it is—but we’re using five-spice for a lot more than that. Here are five ways to get you started:
Also try pickled fennel, turnips, and eggs.
Also try the chicken-fried steak, pork chops, and cauliflower.
Also try sprinkling five-spice on other snacky foods, from baked pita chips to popcorn.
Also try: baking the streusel on a sheet pan, then sprinkling the crumbles over ice cream.
How often do you use five-spice? Tell us your favorite ways in the comments below!