Looking broadly at Chinese cooking, the flavor secrets that stand out are soy, garlic, ginger, onion, white pepper, rice wine and sesame oil (from black sesame). In Szechuan and Hunan provinces, the list also includes a spirited use of hot, red pepper and more subtle Szechuan pepper.

In southern China and Vietnam, there is a whole category of dishes that have a sweet-spicy topnote with the unmistakable aroma of anise. These dishes may feature chicken, pork, beef or even noodles, but the common denominator is the use of five-spice powder. This Chinese blend begins with star anise and includes anise seeds (or fennel seeds), cloves, cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns, in approximately equal measures.

Star anise is a star-shaped fruit with an anise-like flavor, but it is not related to the plant that gives us anise seeds. While reminiscent of the licorice flavor of anise, star anise’s flavor is quite different from that of the seeds. This is the reason both are used in five-spice powder.

Szechuan peppercorns are not related to black pepper. They are the reddish-brown berries of a bush that grows in China. The flavor is fairly mild, somewhat peppery, but with a menthol overtone that gives the tongue and lips a unique tingling sensation.

Sai Lan Far Gai Pin To Yan is one of the many Chinese recipes for chicken that calls for five-spice powder. In this dish, ginger and garlic are also added separately. Soy sauce and rice wine (or dry sherry) complete the flavoring mix.

Spareribs are another meat frequently flavored with five-spice, especially when the pork is barbecued, and usually when it is given the red-roasted treatment that so many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. feature. In a typical spareribs recipe, garlic, pepper, soy, sesame oil and honey also will be used.

Five-spice powder is found in marinades, too. Shiu Ng Heung Gai is an oven-roasted chicken that requires marinating and then frequent basting with the marinade as the bird roasts. The marinade in this preparation calls for soy sauce, peanut oil, rice wine, garlic and ginger--in addition to the five-spice powder. pf
Pilot recipes for these dishes from foreign lands had originally been adapted exclusively for Prepared Foods by the test kitchen of the American Spice Trade Assoc.  (FR0892)  
 4 tsps corn starch, divided
1tsp five-spice powder (recipe follows)
1tsp garlic powder
¾ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
1lb boned and skinned chicken breasts (cutlets), cut in ¾-inch pieces
½ cup cold water
2 tbsps Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1tbsp soy sauce vegetable oil
2 cups broccoli florets
½ cup sliced sweet red bell pepper
1 cup fried walnut pieces(*)
 

In a cup, combine 3 tsps cornstarch, five-spice powder, garlic powder, ginger and salt. In a shallow bowl, place chicken; sprinkle with spice mixture, stirring to coat; set aside. In a cup, combine water, wine, soy sauce and remaining 1tsp cornstarch; set aside. Meanwhile, in a wok or large skillet, heat 2 tbsps oil until hot. Add broccoli and red pepper; stir-fry until almost crisp-tender, about 3 minutes; remove vegetables to a plate; set aside. In a wok, heat 2 tbsps oil until hot. Add reserved chicken; stir-fry until chicken is opaque, about 2 minutes. Stir reserved soy sauce mixture; add to skillet; cook and stir until sauce boils and thickens, about 2 minutes. Add walnuts and reserved vegetables; stir-fry until heated through, about 1 minute. Serve over steamed rice, if desired.

Yield: 4 portions, 4 half-cups.

*To fry walnuts: Heat 1½ tbsp vegetable oil to 360°F. Add walnuts; fry until golden, about 1 minute. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Chinese Five-spice Powder4 whole star anise or 2 tsps anise seeds
1tbsp fennel seeds
½ tsp whole black pepper (30)
2 pieces cinnamon stick (3in each), broken up
½ tsp whole cloves (12)


In a blender container, place anise, fennel, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves; blend until powdered.

Yield: 2 half-tbsps.