If you’ve eaten Asian food there’s a good chance you’ve had 5 spice powder (wǔxiāng fěn, 五香粉, Pong Palo). Especially if you’ve had dishes with fatty meats, braised dishes or many stir-fried noodle dishes. It offers a deep, rich flavor that helps cut through the fat and I’ve heard it said “it brings harmony to chaos”. (Sadly I don’t remember where I heard the reference.)
The history of five spice powder is rather interesting, although murky and mysterious. The truth is no one is 100% sure when five spice powder was created, but it’s been traced back as far as fourth century BCE where it was used in Chinese medicine because it was seen as a perfect combination of all five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy.
Also, depending on the recipe you use, five spice powder often has more, or less, than 5 spices. For example, in southern China they’ll sometimes add Mandarin orange peel. Some recipes use white as well as black pepper, some only use Szechuan peppercorns and many even add powdered ginger. The flexibility of the spice can sometimes vary city to city, reign to reign, but there are a base group of spices that are always a “must include”… cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel seeds and cloves.
But again, this seems to vary based on country. For example, the wonderfully talented (and beautiful) Pailin Chongchitnant from Hot Thai Kitchen says “5 is just a guideline. Even the ones you buy from the grocery store don’t always have 5 spices in them.” She also says when making Pong Palo (5 spice powder) it must have cinnamon and star anise, but the rest are optional.”
Finally, one of the niftiest things about five spice powder is it’s not just for Asian food. It’s also wonderful in BBQ sauces, fruit/meat pies and on the grill. So stock up and explore the wonderful world of five spice powder!
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1-2 star anise
- 2 tsp of Sichuan peppercorn
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds (Optional, but I always include if I leave out white/black pepper.)
- 1 tsp white pepper (Optional, adds fruit flavors and a little heat)
- 1 tsp black pepper (Optional, adds mild heat and slight fruity flavors)
- 1 small black cardamom, or half of a large pod
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tbsp dried orange peel (optional, but I always include if I leave out white/black pepper.)
- 1 tsp ginger powder
- Place all of your spices, except for the ginger powder, into a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Grind completely until everything is a fine powder. If your coffee grinder doesn't mill all of your spices to completely smooth it's fine to pass the spices through a small sieve to remove the larger bits to regrind. (This sometimes happens on black cardamom pods.)
- Add ginger powder and stir to mix completely.
- Store your 5 spice powder for up to 3-6 months.
Notice: Most recipes ask you to roast/toast your spices BEFORE grinding them. I find that I get a better flavor when I use raw spices and allow them to toast in oil when actually cooking a dish so more of that aroma and flavor is passed into the food instead of potentially going stale in a bottle waiting for me to use it.