A versatile spice mix unique to Chinese cuisine, five spice powder adds great flavour to many classic dishes. It’s very easy to make at home.
What is five spice powder
Known as Wu Xiang Fen (五香粉) in Chinese, five spice powder is a type of ground spice blend commonly used in Chinese cuisine. Unlike what its name suggests, it doesn’t necessarily contain only five spices. Usually, the number is a little higher.
The key components include star anise, cassia cinnamon, fennel seeds and cloves. Other additions can be Sichuan pepper, white pepper, sand ginger, dried tangerine peel, Chinese cardamom, nutmeg, licorice root, etc.
Having a brown or amber colour, it has a strong aroma with star anise offering the most noticeable smell. Since it doesn’t contain any spicy ingredients, it doesn’t create heat on the palate.
Ingredient and ratio
Here are the spices that I use and their ratio (by WEIGHT):
- 1 part star anise
- 1 part fennel seeds
- ½ part Sichuan pepper
- ½ part cassia cinnamon/Chinese cinnamon
- ⅕ part cloves
- ⅕ part white pepper (optional)
Since five spice powder is always used sparingly in dishes, I don’t make very much each time. To make about ⅓ cup of powder, for example, I use 10g of star anise and fennel seeds each, 5g of Sichuan pepper and cinnamon each, and 2g of cloves and white pepper each.
It’s perfectly fine to weigh the ingredients using imperial measurement (by ounces) as long as you follow the same ratio.
🛎 Purchase notes:
- In my experience, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves and white pepper can be found in mainstream supermarkets, while Sichuan pepper and cassia cinnamon are available in Chinese/Asian stores.
- If you have trouble sourcing cassia cinnamon (aka Chinese cinnamon, cassia bark), you may replace it with Ceylon cinnamon (the one commonly used in pastries) but reduce its quantity by half.
- Some of the spices also come in powdered form, such as Sichuan pepper powder, cassia cinnamon powder, ground white pepper. Please feel free to substitute.
Three steps to make it
Step 1: Toast
First, you’ll need to toast the spices to bring out their best flavour. Also, this process dries out any moisture in the spices.
Before toasting, separate the pods of star anise. Remove the black seeds and stems from the Sichuan pepper if you find any. Break the cassia cinnamon sticks into smaller pieces if they’re quite big.
Put all the spices into a cool pan. Turn the heat to medium-low then toast. Shake the pan from time to time to move the spices around. When you see the colour of the fennel seeds darken a little and you hear some popping sound, transfer the spices out to cool.
🛎 Note: You may see some recipes suggesting washing the spices beforehand. I don’t think it’s necessary. However, please feel free to do so if you wish. In this case, make sure you air dry them completely before toasting.
Step 2: Grind
Once completely cooled, put the toasted spices into a spice grinder (or a mini blender). Run the machine for a few seconds then pause for a few seconds. Repeat the procedure to mill the spices until they turn into powder. Try not to keep the machine running continually as it may cause overheating.
Step 3: Sift
The last step is optional. If you happen to have a fine sieve, use it to sift the powder to remove any remaining bits.
Store your homemade five spice powder the same way as for other spices. Air-tight jars or containers are preferable as the aroma lasts longer this way. Theoretically, the powder can be kept indefinitely but the intensity of the flavour decreases over time.
How to use five spice powder
Now you’ve got a jar of homemade five spice powder in hand. How to use it to uplift authentic Chinese dishes? Here are some popular ways:
- Use it as a dry rub: Try the classic Five Spice Chicken (see image above), or use it to replace the salt & pepper rub for my Wok Smoked Chicken.
- Mix it into dumpling fillings. For example Pork Dumplings, Cabbage Rolls (gluten-free), Chinese Chive Pockets (Vegetarian), Pan-fried Bao Buns, etc.
- Incorporate it into a marinade: Combine with other sauces to marinate Char Siu Pork (Chinese BBQ Pork) or Char Siu Chicken.
- Add it to a braised dish/stew: Taiwanese Pork Rice Bowl (Lu Rou Fan) is a great example.
- Use it to flavour layered bread/buns. The classic recipes include Scallion Pancake, Spiced Beef Flatbread, steamed Scallion Flower Rolls, etc.
- Add it to the steeping liquid for Marbled Tea Eggs.
Although versatile, five spice powder doesn’t work for every Chinese dish. Please consider these two principles:
- Do not use too much at a time. Thanks to its strong, intense aroma, a little goes a long way. It can easily overpower the flavour of a dish if not used sparingly.
- Do not use it as a sprinkle over cooked dishes or cold dishes with raw ingredients. You may do so with ground Sichuan pepper in some cases, but five spice powder wouldn’t complement a dish this way.
Other types of Chinese spice blends, such as “Thirteen Spice (十三香)” and “Eighteen Spice (十八香)”, can be considered the advanced versions of five spice powder. So please feel free to use them as substitutes.
For stews or braised dishes, you may replace five spice powder with whole spices without grinding. If available, put the spices in a spicy/tea infuser or a small muslin bag so you can discard them easily after cooking.
Homemade Five Spice Powder (五香粉)
- 10 g star anise
- 10 g fennel seeds
- 5 g cassia cinnamon/Chinese cinnamon
- 5 g Sichuan pepper
- 2 g cloves
- 2 g white pepper, optional
- Separate the pods of star anise. Remove any black seeds and stems from the Sichuan pepper.
- Put all the spices into a cool pan, toast over medium-low heat until fragrant (The colour of the fennel seeds darkens a little and you’d hear some popping sound). Remove from the pan and leave to cool completely.
- Add toasted spices to a spice grinder (or a mini blender). Mill until fine powder appears.
- Pass through a fine sieve to remove any remaining bits.
- Store the powder in an airtight jar away from direct sunlight. It can be used for up to a year (or longer if its aroma stays strong).