Last Tuesday, February 5, was the first day of the Lunar New Year. This holiday is a moveable feast beginning with the second new moon after the winter solstice. Widely celebrated throughout the Orient, it is regarded as the arrival of spring. This one is the last of a 12-year cycle around the Chinese zodiac. Welcome the Year of the Pig. People born under this sign are seen to be happy, easy-going, honest and sincere.
Thus it seems the ideal time to learn about Chinese Five Spice, a spice blend that has been well established in Chinese cuisine for over 2000 years. This blend contains all five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. The essential ingredients are cloves, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, and Szechuan peppercorns. These peppercorns come from a tree in the citrus family and are unrelated to black pepper.
This spice blend is used in the preparation of fatty meats such as pork and duck. The herbs are thought to aid digestion. Modern research has demonstrated that these herbs do have health benefits. Cinnamon is an antioxidant which helps stabilize blood sugar. Cloves are also antioxidants as well as acting as an anti-inflammatory. Fennel is another antioxidant. Star anise boosts the immune system while Szechuan peppercorns aid digestion.
If you would like to make this spice blend, I found a recipe. In that Szechuan peppercorns may be difficult to find, aniseed and allspice may be used as a substitute.
3 star anise
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns (or 1 tbsp aniseed and 1 tbsp allspice)
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp whole cloves
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
Combine all ingredients in a spice grinder and process to a fine powder. Will keep about six months. Makes about 1/4 cup.
The five flavors symbolize the five elements. These elements are fire, metal, wood, earth and water. Fire melts metal. Metal penetrates wood. Wood separates earth. Earth absorbs water. Water quenches fire. Fire is bitter like star anise. Metal is pungent like cloves. Wood is sour as are Szechuan peppercorns. Earth is sweet like cinnamon and fennel. Water is salty.
The five flavors can also be represented by colors. Thought of this way, the colors can be used in the presentation of the food to suggest the flavor to the diner. Rather than being combined in one dish, several foods featuring each of the flavors might make up the meal. Salt is represented by black, bitter by red, sour by green, sweet by yellow, and pungent or spicy by white.
Chinese Five Spice is usually used to season meat or poultry dishes. I found a terrific vegetable recipe using it in a healthy cooking magazine. Regarding recipes as vague roadmaps, I changed it into a simpler creation which I will share with you:
Peel and dice or slice turnips. Toss the pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with Chinese Five Spice powder. Roast at 400 degrees until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. For turnip lovers, it adds some sweetness to their earthy flavor.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett spends the long, cold winter sprinkling turnips with arcane seasonings and dreaming of spring and roses. Email her your gardening questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.