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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.

Feature Chef : Nyonya Su Pei

nyonya supei jpeg_Fotor

The new year 2016 sees Chef Nyonya Su Pei hitting the ground running as she is being carried forward by the momentum of success she was catapulted into after last year’s incredible George Town World Heritage Eat Rite Festival.

With her increasing popularity, Nyonya Su Pei is being kept busy and she laments that last year was the first time she was unable to complete a project – be it a piece of embroidery artwork or writing down all her recipes to be compiled into a book. With a goal of adapting sophisticated Nyonya cuisine for the public, she collaborated with Straits Chinese (Penang) Association on a two-volume cookbook: Nyonya Flavours which has been best-selling for five consecutive years.

Nyonya Su Pei

As the Nyonya cuisine are essentially family secret recipes which have been adapted and adopted over many generations, we asked the ‘taboo’ question of whether Nyonya recipes can really be shared. “When writing out a recipe, I can only write so much,” says Nyonya Su Pei. She reveals that even if there is a group of people cooking the same recipe, the differences in environment, ingredient preparation and even stirring methods can result in different tastes. The intimacy of hands-on teaching can never be replaced with mere words.

Photo Source: Nyonya Su Pei's Facebook

Photo Source: Nyonya Su Pei’s Facebook

For her first ever cooking class in Tropical Spice Garden, it was a “daunting experience to demonstrate to experienced and international gourmands who have probably seen more of the world than I have.” With her incredible passion and determination, Nyonya Su Pei has converted many visitors to the gardens into Nyonya food lovers and has even successfully carried out several Nyonya Masterchef Challenges as a team building activity.

With 10 working stations in Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School, we provide a hands-on environment for that personal experience in learning of our unique local cuisines. Book a class or a teambuilding session today!

 

Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School