High Five
by Mark R. Vogel

            Chinese five-spice powder is a seasoning blend most popular in Chinese cuisine, but found in other Asian cookery as well.  Somewhat obscure to the average American it is composed of equal amounts of ground Sichuan pepper, fennel seed, cinnamon, star anise and cloves.  Five-spice powder is considered to be a culinary Yin and Yang as it purportedly balances an array of taste sensations:  salty, bitter, sour, sweet, and pungent.  A dubious conclusion which we’ll come back to later.

Five-spice powder is the traditional seasoning for Peking duck but that’s just the beginning.  It is used as a rub for all kinds of meats, employed in stir-fries, soups, braised dishes, and more.  Five-spice powder can be found in most supermarkets although the Asian markets will inevitably have the best quality and price.  Or, for the freshest taste possible, simply grind equal amounts of the whole spices at home in a spice grinder. 

Five-spice powder is indeed pungent, so be prudent in its application.  None of its components are salty though, harking back to my suspicion of its Yin Yang potential.  In fact, a delicious seasoning salt is made by blending five-spice powder with an equal amount of salt.  Now we’re Yin and Yanging baby.  Spread this mixture on virtually any meat prior to cooking.  I find it particularly good on duck and chicken, especially chicken wings.  Let’s discuss each of the constituents of five-spice powder followed by my recipe for Chinese spareribs.

 

SICHUAN PEPPER

 

            Confusingly named, Sichuan or Szechuan pepper is not pepper, (meaning the plant that provides black pepper or the one that begets chile peppers for that matter).  Native to the Sichuan province of China, they are the husks of the tiny fruits of an ash tree.  Their flavor is very distinct but pungent nonetheless.  They can cause a numbing feeling in the mouth due to Hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, one of its chemical components.  Sichuan peppercorns can be lightly toasted over low heat in a dry pan, much like nuts, to enhance their flavor nuances even further.  Sichuan pepper is used in all kinds of spicy Chinese dishes especially the tantalizingly delicious Chinese hot pot. 

           

FENNEL SEED

 

            Fennel seeds are the seeds of the fennel plant.  They are available whole and ground.  They are used to flavor breads, sauces, marinades, and liqueurs.  Fennel seeds are indispensable for Italian sausage and many Indian spice mixtures.  Fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean and southwest Asia.  It was savored by the ancient Greeks and was spread throughout Europe by the Romans.   There are two main varieties of fennel: Florence fennel, which is the type inevitably encountered in most supermarkets, and Common fennel, from which fennel seeds are harvested.  Fennel has a characteristic anise aroma and taste.  This is due to a chemical known as anethole, the compound also found in star anise.  Anethole is 13 times sweeter than sugar. 

 

CINNAMON

 

            True cinnamon is derived from the bark of an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka.  Most of the “cinnamon” sold in the United States hails from a related plant called cassia.  Cassia is stronger flavored, has a thicker texture, and is less expensive, hence the reason for its dominance over real cinnamon.  Cinnamon is alleged to possess all sorts of good and bad effects on human biology, from treating diabetes and having anti-cancer properties to having ill effects on the liver and kidneys in large doses.  Cinnamon has far reaching culinary uses and while most recognized for its role in desserts, it has plenty of savory applications as well.  It imparts a sweet, permeating aroma and a mild spiciness. 

 

STAR ANISE

 

            Native to an evergreen tree from China, star anise is a star-shaped brown pod.  The licorice-like flavor arises from the aforementioned chemical anethole, also found in fennel.  It is widely used in Asian cuisine where it serves as a flavoring for sweet and savory dishes as well as for teas.  It’s an important ingredient in garam masala, the renowned Indian spice mixture, Vietnamese noodle soups, and Malaysian cookery.  Western cultures favor its use in desserts and for flavoring liqueurs.  It has also been utilized to make the anti-flu drug Tamiflu. 

 

CLOVES

 

            Cloves are the unopened flower bud of yet another evergreen tree.  They are also sold whole or ground and like most of the preceding spices, have a myriad of uses from savory to sweet dishes.  They are native to Indonesia but are grown in other Southeast Asian nations and even Madagascar.  They are used extensively in Indian cooking and even used to compose cigarettes in Indonesia. They have a warm, sweet and aromatic taste that is somewhat unique.  Cloves are also imbibed with all sorts of medicinal claims.  Large amounts can be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract.  However, this is usually not an issue since due to their intensity, they are normally used sparingly. 

 

CHINESE SPARERIBS

 

2 lbs. spareribs

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon five-spice powder

Ground hot pepper powder, to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

 

            Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Remove the skin from the back side of the ribs.  Its removal will facilitate the absorption of the spices as well as render the meat more tender.  Whisk all of the ingredients for the seasoning together.  Brush half of the mixture on the ribs.  Apply it sparingly to the bone side and save most of it to the meat side.  There should be a fairly thick layer of the sauce resting on top the meat.  Place the ribs in the oven meat side up.  Roast for an hour and a half and then apply the remaining sauce only to the top, or meat side.  Roast another hour and a half and serve. 

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