The world is host to some of the most incredibly exotic, flavoursome, fragrant and sensual spice mixes. Starting with France there is quatre épices (black pepper, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon), moving south-east to Morocco there is the brilliant ras-el-hanout (20+ ingredients that includes cardamom, rose petals, cassia bark, mace, clove, cumin and chilli – recipes are secret and usually passed down through generations of families), in the Middle East one of my absolute favourites za’atar (marjoram, oregano, thyme, sesame and the wonderfully sour sumac), heading to India the famous garam masala (cumin, coriander seed, green cardamom, black pepper, clove, mace and cinnamon), over to Japan there is Shichimi (sanshō – Japanese version of Sichuan pepper, coarse ground red chilli, poppy seeds, black and white sesame seeds, dried mandarin peel – or yuzu peel, and ground ginger) and over to Mexico for recado rojo (annatto, Mexican oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic and salt). They are breathtaking examples of how wondrous this planet is.
And these spice mixes are not definitive in their recipes because for every one I have listed here there are blenders scattered around the world that have a different version or multiple versions. Which ever so nicely brings me on to one of the all-time classic spice mixes, and one that has a particular inspirational effect on me – Chinese five-spice powder.
The inspiration effect usually occurs whilst I am meandering through an Asian grocer or market. It’s that incredible point when I take in a fragrant dose of star anise and cinnamon; two of the main components of five-spice powder. It sends me in to a rising helical spiral, up through the clouds to a virtual kitchen in the sky. It has such a profound effect that all I want to do is rip my top off and dive straight in to a vat of spices. Possibly, that could be a new brand of chef – the Semi-naked Chef (the Naked Chef has already been taken). Whenever I am ever lacking motivation to cook, all I need to do is smell the small jar of five-spice powder in my kitchen and in a flash I am inspired and motivated.
So, I mentioned about how for every spice mix there are many versions. This is very much the case with Chinese five-spice powder. So much so that although the mix can be traditionally thought of as a combination of star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel seed and Sichuan pepper, other ingredients are often added so that it morphs in to a six-spice, seven-spice or eight-spice powder. For example, additions, or even substitutes for the base ingredients, include galangal (the piny version of ginger), dried mandarin peel, mace or nutmeg, green cardamom, turmeric (that annoyingly yellow dyeing but wonderfully earthy powder) or liquorice (similar notes and flavours to star anise).
As the former chemist within reminds me, the most important of all – the difference between a utopian spice mix and sensory confusion – is the quantity of each ingredient in the mix. Getting this right is an absolute imperative, and it is the main secret held by all those generations of blenders throughout the world. It is also the reason that when you look for a definitive recipe for ras-el-hanout, for example, you may find a complete list of ingredients but there are not many out there willing to share the winning formula. In perfumery some fragrances are a combination of 40-50 components. The perfumer behind Chanel No 5, for example, could give you a complete list of ingredients and you would be no closer to replicating the smell. Even with high tech. chemical analysis it is still very difficult to exactly replicate such a perfume. The skill is with the perfumer, and thus is the case with the spice blender. It is a skill that shows what clever bods us human beings are.
I do not put myself in the category of a master spice blender, and I do not have a secret recipe that has been passed down through the generations – there seriously was no place for Chinese five-spice in my humble Yorkshire upbringing. However, I am willing to share with you my personal blend (including quantities) of a Chinese five-spice powder that I have developed and tweaked over the last couple of years, and as efficient as an asthmatic ant carrying a heavy bag of shopping (I stole that from Black Adder) I am now going to scavenge around for that scrap of paper I wrote the recipe on…
1 hour later…found it:
The Secret of Chinese Five-SpicePrint
- ■ 1 quill Cinnamon |
- ■ 1 tsp. Fennel Seeds |
- ■ 5 pods Star anise |
- ■ ½ tsp. Cloves |
- ■ ½ tsp. Ginger powder |
- ■ ½ tsp. Sichuan pepper |
Grind the cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, cloves and Sichuan pepper in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder until you have a fine powder. Add the ginger powder and mix thoroughly. The spice powder can be stored in an air tight jar for 3 months or so.
This five-spice is used in the cracking dish Chilli Caramel Pork Loin with Vietnamese Apple Slaw topped with Five Spice Crackling.