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Five of the Best – the Secrets of Chinese Spice

Five Spice mix is an essential ingredient in almost all of traditional Chinese cuisine. Exquisitely balanced between bitter and pungent, spicy and sweet, sour and salty, a well-made Five Spice mix is truly a “wonder powder” that lifts your cooking into the stratosphere. You can use it a rub, in a marinade, as a cooking ingredient, or even as a table condiment. In fact it’s extremely versatile and can be used with rice, vegetables, port, chicken and in almost any kind of stir-fry. You can even be bold and add it to sweeter dishes non-traditional dishes such as muffins, nut breads, pancakes, and even in coffee.

At the heart of Chinese philosophy is the concept of yin and yang, the need to balance the hot masculine principle of yang with the cooling influence of yin. This harmony is an essential feature of Five Spice mixes where each element has its own role to play but none predominates. There are many variants to it but a common mix contains: Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves, star anise, and fennel seeds.

Let’s look at the ingredients one by one. First of all, there’s Chinese cinnamon, or cassia, which imparts a sweet, spicy flavour. Usually, it’s best to avoid cassia, as Ceylon cinnamon is healthier and has a more refined taste, but Five Spice does seem to call for the more pungent cassia. Next, comes Sichuan pepper, which isn’t a true peppercorn but a brownish red berry deriving from the prickly ash bush. It’s spicy, with undertones of anise and ginger and modulates to a lemony, sour flavour, which is both salty and hot. Cloves are next and, when they are ground up, they release a sweet and yet pungent aroma. The beautiful star anise is reminiscent of liquorice and carries vital bitter undertones. Fennel seeds, the final ingredient of the spice mix, are similar but sweeter and less pungent. There are variants, of course, and they include: anise seeds, ginger root, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, liquorice, Mandarin orange peel and galangal.

Nyonya Lor Bak uses 5 spice powder as one of the ingredients in marinating the meat

In Penang, the Nyonya traditional of cooking, which includes Chinese, Malay, and Thai influences, Five Spice mixes are an essential component of many dishes. Many of the old Nyonya families have their own special recipe for Five Spice mixes, which are jealously guarded and handed down secretly from mother to daughter. If you are in Penang, you might like to join a Nyonya cuisine cooking class at the Tropical Spice Garden’s Cooking School. Cooking classes a held daily (except Mondays) featuring different local traditional cuisines including Malay, Indian, and of course Nyonya. Click here for class schedules. As classes are limited to 10 persons, chefs are able to provide a personalised approach. Though the menus follow authentic and traditional methods they are taught in such a way that you are able to recreate the delicious dishes at home.