Know your Spices: Deciphering the Five Spice Mix
The Theory of Five Elements
The Five Spice mix is a marvel in the culinary universe. Though the story of its creation is lost to history and myths only lead to more ambiguity, there are theories that validate the origin. Common theories point out towards the Chinese trying to create a “wonder powder” with the five spice mix.
The Chinese rest their faith in the concept of five energy fields or five elements known as “chi”. According to them, these energy fields define our existence. I believe that the Chinese culture finds its roots embedded deep into these five elements — right from the functioning of the body to Chinese medicine as well as Chinese cooking — that stem from “chi”. The five spice powder also seems to have surfaced from this concept.
In Chinese medicine and cooking, it’s believed that we must consume certain elements to improve our bodily health. According to the Chinese tradition, the five elements also represent the five vital organs!
The Asian Cooking Code
To the world, the five spice powder may appear as just another authentic spice mixture. To some, it may seem like an accidental discovery by a chef who happened to stumble upon this recipe while playing around in the kitchen. What you may not know about this powder is its power to vitalize even the most basic and dull dishes; and your body too.
A standard five spice mix is made up of fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. As you may have already figured, this spice powder can satiate your entire palate — sweet, sour, pungent, salty and bitter. The five-spice powder has a rare appeal to it; an unparalleled uniqueness that exudes beautiful flavours.
I’ve used this powder in a lot of my Chinese experiments and it has never disappointed me. A cooking technique that I use often and can’t get out of my cooking regime is ‘flavour potting’. This procedure calls for a lot of sweat and toil. This remarkable method of cooking involves steeping meat in a thick, rich sauce with a pinch of the Five spice mix. I cook it for long hours on low heat so that the flavours ooze out of every morsel of the meat and the meat is succulent. My ideal choice of meats to ‘flavour pot’ are quail, duck and pork because of their greasy textures. Of course, you can use pretty much any meat you like but don’t lose the fat! But there’s nothing like the luxury of five-spice roasted quail or five-spice pork chops!
Bedrock of Chinese culture
The five spice mix is a rich reflection of the Chinese philosophy that explores the balance of the yin and yang in food. Apart from being used as a key flavour enhancer in the Chinese culinary world, it is a reflection of what the Chinese culture stands for — preservation of the unique identity that is symbolic of the nation’s traditions.