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Figuring out, incorporating five-spice

February 27, 2013


Okay, boys and girls. Let’s gather around for our cultural history of spices lesson for today. Today’s spice is Chinese five-spice powder. Oooooh.

The five, of course, refers to the five elements of the Chinese zodiac: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. So, the recent Feb. 10 not only marks the beginning of the year of the snake but the beginning of the year of the water snake, something Mississippians can appreciate. Auspicious. It has not been a water snake year since 1953, the same year Joseph Stalin died. See, history is fun.

Totally unrelated but I’d like to note it because I think its funny: I was born in the year of the metal monkey. Metal monkeys distinguish themselves as charismatic con artists. We’re stealing from you. You know we’re stealing from you. We know you know. And you know we know you know. But everybody is fine with it because we’re all having such a good time. This is pretty much how I move through the world.

The five of five-spice also refers to the five basic sensations of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (pungent). Ask me about G protein-coupled receptors on gustatory calyculi (taste buds) sometime. I now know lots. In any case, five-spice powder is thought to be an attempt by ancient Chinese cooks to capture all five of these basic taste sensations through a wonder spice blend. Traditionally its made up of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel though there are probably a zillion variations. Apparently there was also an attempt to top this wonder blend by adding two more spices to make — you guessed it — seven-spice powder, which, well I think this is a little lacking in ambition. I mean, if you’re going to try and top five, why just go with seven spices total? Why not, like, one hundred and twenty-three?

So, why am I prattling on about five-spice (other than that it’s always nice to start your day acquiring some new little chestnut of information — you’re welcome)?  Well, five-spice has been a bit of white whale for me since I became a vegetarian. 

The spice is fairly common in Chinese cooking, especially for roasted and braised meat dishes. It has also followed the Chinese diaspora around the world. In Hawaii, you can often find it in a little shaker on the table at restaurants. So this is a flavor that I have grown up with but haven’t really had since I swore off my zombie ways.

The internet contains the answers to all you are seeking.

Recently, I’d been craving the sweet, dark, weirdness of five-spice and started poking around for culinary inspiration. Results: a million recipes for five-spice Peking duck, only a few for marinated five-spice tofu. And since some people in this household find tofu to be a bland and creepy disappointment (insert your own partisan joke here if you like) and I lack the planning skills to marinade anything, ever, this wasn’t going to work. What I came up instead with substitutes king mushrooms (now available at local Starkvillage grocery stores) for pork tenderloin. Though they’re easy enough to find at the Asian market, if you don’t have Chinese egg noodles on hand regular semolina fettuccini or spaghetti are also fine substitutes. Five-spice can also be found at the Asian market but if you want to make your own blend, I’ve included quick instructions below.

Five-spice carrot and mushroom noodles
3 Tbsp. vegetable or canola oil
8 oz. king mushrooms, halved
1/4 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
4-5 carrots, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch slices
1 tsp. sugar
4 scallions, chopped, including green tops
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds removed, chopped
2 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 lb. fettuccine or Chinese egg noodles
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
splash of rice wine vinegar salt and pepper
To make your own five-spice powder:

Grind together 2 tsp. of Szechuan peppercorns and 8 star anise pods. Or, if you don’t have either of these, use black peppercorns and about 4 tsp. ground anise. Then add 1/2 tsp. ground cloves, 1 Tbsp. of ground cinnamon and 1 Tbsp. of ground fennel. Grind again until very fine and store in an airtight container.

First put on a pot of salted water to boil.  Next, heat up 1 Tbsp. of the oil in a large, high-rimmed skillet. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and 1/8 tsp. of the five-spice powder. Cook over high heat undisturbed until they start to brown, about 1 minute, on their bottoms then flip. When both sides are lightly browned, set the mushrooms aside on a plate under an overturned bowl.

Using the same skillet, add the remaining 2 Tbsp. of oil, the carrots and the sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the carrots begin to brown, approximately 3 minutes. Stir in the scallions, ginger, garlic and jalapeño. After another minute or two, add the soy sauce, stock, and the other 1/8 tsp. of five-spice powder. Lower the heat so that it gently bubbles while you cook the pasta.

When the pasta is slightly al dente, drain it and add it to the pan with the sauce. Stir in the cilantro, sprinkle with rice wine vinegar and serve.

This meal clearly came out of some longing for my Chinese roots. But, like five-spice powder itself, it represents the long journey since those origins: a Mississippi, vegetarian version of five-spice pork. It makes a nice filling meal, packed with vegetables, and perfect for these weird, blustery February days. Gung Hay Fat Choy. Happy Chinese New Year.
Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University.  She can be contacted at

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