If you are here just for the recipe - scroll down. But if you would like to know a bit more about the Five-Spice, Five Flavours and cinnamon, please read through!
Because of my peculiar brain flaw I always need to get into the "essence" of things. Why, what for, where, when and who are the basics for everything, which means it is very difficult for me to focus on one thing only and details keep me awake at night. My thinking is not linear and I get lost in all of the possibilities of explaining any idea or phenomenon from just one point of view. So, if I was to research and present an essay on Renaissance, I would read all there is about what was before, why it had happened they way it had, what are the critics' opinions, what it meant on social, cultural and economic grounds and then I would wake up around 2 am, reading archived private letters of Leonardo da Vinci about his stomach problems. I would end up having one very weird paragraph in my assay and the cursor blinking. I still can't figure out how in hell have I managed to finish my college studies (which was a lot of fun at the same time).
If you got through to this point - I'm impressed. I can continue with the Five Spice story now, because it is not a place for private detours. Introductions are not my strengths as well.
As you may now imagine, the idea of Five Spice powder made me a research-junkie for a good couple of days. It is one of the most popular spices in the world and there are tons of recipes online, but at the same time it is much more complex. I started with some basics: what is the origin? What is the idea behind it? Who made it first? What is the point? How to use it? Should I make it or buy it? Is it always the same? What do Chinese people think of it?
I could go on with more and more questions, trust me. I asked them all to myself and researched poo out of this.
And only then did I realize that the five flavours represented in the Five Spice powder is the perfect name for my blog. I have struggled for a very long time to choose a name that would mean something to me. A name that inspires me and at the same times gives an idea behind the content of this blog. Which is why, the "recipe" for the Five Spice powder will be the first post here.
There is no one common blend, as Five-Spice powder is widely used mostly in Northern China, and in different parts of the country, the ingredients and ratio differ as well.
When you go through recipes online you can find all sorts of stories behind it. Some of them really convince me, but there are really many options to see 5 spice powder. Some of them include:
- the choice of spices represents the balance of yin and yang
- it is believed that number "5" has healing properties
- as some sources claim, the Chinese wanted to create a perfect spice blend, in which each spice would represent one of the 5 elements: fire, earth, water, metal and air
However, my friend enlightened me and somehow cooled down my over-thinking tendencies of a Western person. The idea of five spices is often confused with the ancient Five Flavours idea, which originates in Chinese Medicine. Below you can find a fragment, which I think perfectly depicts Chinese view on food:
If people pay attention to the five flavours and blend them well, their bones will remain straight, their muscles will remain tender and young, breath and blood will circulate freely, the pores will be fine in texture, and consequently breath and bones will be filled with the Essence of life.
Huang Di, Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, 2500 BC (see note)
In general, the Chinese perceived food as something that can heal you or can make you sick. They came up with the system of Basic Principles, which include:
- five flavours - influence energetic actions and directions of food
- temperature - food possesses thermal properties; it can cool or warm your body or particular organs
- route - intake of food takes place throughout your whole organism, resonating with your organs in a certain way and order
- therapeutic action - food can heal your body or make you sick
- cooking methods - preparation and cooking process are vital to create meals, which can influence our bodies and stimulate them
In such a away, Elements are associated with Flavours as follows:
Fire --> Bitter
Earth --> Sweet
Metal --> Pungent
Water --> Salty
Wood --> Sour
Five Flavours for the Chinese is more often associated with medicine rather than cooking, but again, it can be clearly seen that some of the assumptions are quite correct and one thing is for sure - the Five-Spice powder is about perfect balance.
You have now experienced my non-linear thinking, dear Reader. The road to meritum is bumpy or full of turns, but I'd rather call them exciting plot-twists.
Getting back to the subject of the post (again), the basic Five-Spice powder consists of:
- star anise (bā jiǎo 八角)
- cloves (dīng xiāng 丁香)
- Sichuan peppercorn (huā jiāo 花椒)
- Fennel seeds (xiǎo huí xiāng 小茴香)
- and last but not least Chinese cinnamon (ròu guì 肉桂)
What is "Chinese" cinnamon then?
At this point, I'm putting a lot of effort to skip the part where I tell you all about the etymology of the word "cinnamon" (on which I spent about 45 minutes reading, and which is also the reason why this post is being written for like 5 days).
Cinnamon as a spice has always had a special place in my heart, but I have never considered that the cinnamon which I get from the store is not the only kind of cinnamon you can get.
So, know your cinnamon!
There are a couple of kinds of cinnamon used around the world, but the widely used ones are:
Cinnamomum cassia also called Chinese cinnamon
Cinnamomum loureiroi also known as Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon
Cinnamomum verum also known as true cinnamon tree or Ceylon cinnamon tree and originates from Sri Lanka
My biggest issue is that not many brands put the correct name on the package. You can find the info about the origin country, but this is not specific and can be misleading. Below you can find pictures of each cinnamon and you can see that they do differ. The pictures are not mine, they are from the Almighty Internet and you can find the source by clicking the picture.
I have used both cassia and loureiroi but it should not be a surprise that the Chinese one is much better. I will not get in details about the origins and anatomy of each one of them (oh, but how I would love to...), so the conclusion is - buy the right cinnamon or, if you don't need it for Five-Spice powder specifically, at least know what you buy.
One last thing to know about the cinnamon - the powdered cinnamon at your grocery store is also cassia. It is cheaper then the Ceylon one, the taste is a bit more harsh, while the Ceylon cinnamon is mild and sweeter. As the studies show, cassia has a higher level of the substance called Coumarin. A large intake of this substance can cause liver damage. You can read more about it HERE.
But I like living dangerously, so no data can make me stop using cinnamon.
I strongly believe in the idea of perfect balance in everything, not only in the spice blend. So, in the beginning, I was considering blending spices in equal amount of each, but it appeared to be too literal and was no good. Then, I thought about the final balance of the aroma and sensations of the blend, which is way more difficult to achieve. After many trials and different combinations, I came up with a perfect blend for me. I would like to emphasize the part "me", as I think preparing your own bland will take you places. I sincerely believe that making your own blend will be a rewarding and great experience. I got a bit philosophical with mine and got all tangled in assumptions, expectations and details, but I guess it is also a part of the journey.
To humor you a bit, my dear Reader, and to reward you for reading all the way to this place, let me tell you how, after my whole sacred research process and hours spent online, few simple words shattered my sense of knowing-so-much.
To confirm all my thoughts and conclusions, I reached out to my Chinese colleague from Chengdu to ask him to share with me the secret - how does HE or his family prepare the holy Five-Spice powder. I imagined some perfectly balanced blend with secret ways of grinding and roasting, mixing clockwise at noon, looking to the horizon to the South-West while breathing and meditating, but... well. It turns out that, at least in the South of China, things are a bit... less complex.
After my super long Whatsupp text (yes, my texts are also... insightful, I would say) and explaining to him all my concerns and doubts, I asked way too eagerly
"So, how do you make it?", and his answer was
"I buy it at a store".
And so, all my fantasies about the secret recipes were gone and I have learnt that sometimes there is no point over-thinking things. He told me that the spice blend is not much of a fuss, especially in Southern China, and five flavours are more often linked to the Chinese Medicine. This showed me how different it is for an outsider to write and speak about China and how people like to relay on information they find online.
It was also my first major breakdown, because I realized how little do I still know and how can I respectfully approach the oldest culinary culture in the world. This is my main doubt, but also a dedication to stay faithful to the art remaining true to myself at the same time. So I stopped working on the blog and recipes for like two months.
But I had to admit that I'm obsessed and I don't care (sometimes). I was supposed to travel to China this year, however, as well all know, travelling is postponed to a "better future". So, I will travel here, from province to province, learning, devouring (both knowledge and experience), cooking (12 times sometimes), experimenting, reviewing and testing.
My Five-Spice powder
20 g Sichuan peppercorns
20 g Chinese cinnamon
10 g star anise
7 g cloves
8 g fennel