Chinese five-spice powder (Recipe: vegetable medley with five-spice dip)
Can you name:
The five W's? (who, what, where, when, why)
The five senses? (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste)
The five elements? (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water)
The five flavors? (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty)
The five spices in Chinese five-spice powder?
Star anise, clove, fennel, cinnamon (or cassia), and Szechuan pepper comprise the only common spice blend in Chinese cookery. India has its masalas; the Mideast and Africa give us berbere and baharat, harissa and ras el hanout. From France comes the incomparable quatre-epices. And America offers barbecue dry rubs of infinite variation, and crab boil.
In China, there's really only five-spice. Which is sometimes seven-spice, with the addition of cardamom, dried ginger, or licorice root.
Most popular in the cooking of southern China (and also Vietnam), five-spice powder may have originated as an attempt to create a "wonder drug" that brought all of the five elements into harmony, balancing yin and yang.
Each of the spices contributes an important flavor to the mix, though the dominant taste and aroma may be the star anise, with a licorice-like taste and a slightly bitter undertone. Cinnamon, fennel and cloves provide sweetness, but also a pungency. Szechuan peppercorns contribute a spicy, peppery taste that mellows to sour and salty.
Five-spice pairs well with meats such as lamb, pork and beef, which have strong flavor of their own, and with tofu, which has no flavor of its own. Generally, this spice blend will overpower vegetables, unless it's combined with other seasonings, but how about five-spice cookies?
A little goes a long way, so unless you are wokking up a storm, I'd suggest buying this spice blend in small quantities (or buy a larger, more economical amount and share with friends). Penzeys sells a one-ounce jar for $2.59.
You can make your own five-spice, of course. All you need is a small skillet and a spice grinder (a.k.a. coffee grinder dedicated to spices) or mortar and pestle. Adjust the proportions and taste, until your yin and yang approve.
Vegetable medley with five-spice dip
The dip, inspired by a recipe in Vegetarian Appetizers by Paulette Mitchell, would be equally good with grilled or roasted vegetables (how about roasted sweet potato spears?). Serves 4.
1/2 lb soft tofu, drained under a weight for 30 minutes
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
2 Tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 tsp minced fresh mint
1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste
Ground white pepper, to taste
1/2 large red bell pepper, sliced thin
1/2 large green bell pepper, sliced thin
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed, sliced thin
1 large carrot, cut in half across, then julienned
A few large button mushrooms, brushed clean and stems trimmed
Place first seven ingredients in a blender, and process until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste, and set aside.
Arrange vegetables on a platter, and serve with the dip.