Chinese five spice powder is a spice mixture, typically made from fennel, cloves, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, and cinnamon, although in some regions, ginger is used instead of fennel. The blend combines the five primary flavors of Chinese cuisine: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, and salty. It is widely used in Chinese restaurants and sometimes set out on tables to be used as a food seasoning, much like ground pepper or salt. It is relatively easy to make, and the blend can be used in an assortment of cuisines, not just Chinese food.
To make five spice powder, cooks can start by toasting 2 teaspoons (5.8 grams) of Szechuan peppercorns in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When the peppercorns start to release a strong scent, they should be ground with eight star anise pods. To this, 1 teaspoon (2.1 g) ground cloves, 1 teaspoon (2.6 g) of cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon (2 g) of fennel should be added, and the cook should continue to grind them until the powder is evenly mixed. The blend can be stored in an airtight container in a cool dark place until use.
This spice blend can also be purchased in Asian supermarkets and some specialty stores, but the flavor may not be as intense as it is in a home made version, as the spices have been sitting for an unknown period of time. To revive a stale spice, cooks can toast it for a few moments in a skillet before use.
Some cooks mix five spice powder with salt so that it can be used to rub and season meats or as a seasoned salt. Others prefer to make it fresh every time it is needed, to keep the flavors as rich and fresh as possible. Either way, the powder should be used in moderation, because the flavor can be quite pungent and intense, and it is easy to ruin a dish by using too much of it. Cooks should add small amounts at a time, and taste frequently to ensure that the dish is not being overwhelmed by the spice blend.
In China, this mix is used to season meats, especially fatty meats like duck and some pork. It is also used in some vegetarian cuisine. In addition to being used in Chinese food, the powder can be integrated into other Asian dishes or added to create a dash of unique flavor in Western style foods. It can be used as a dry rub or added to a skillet at the start of cooking to permeate the whole dish. Cooks should be aware, however, that the pungency of the flavor is distasteful to some people, and that some dinner guests may find it unpleasant.