Food Profile: The Spice World – Chinese Five Spice

[1] The breakdown of the Chinese five spice – an alternative for marinating many meats. 

In this edition of Speaking Seb, I return with a Food Profile, regarding the Chinese five spice. I did say I wanted to categorise things so that it would make life easier for you, the reader. This article is another Oriental-based – I will try to revert between different regions across the world, so we get an overall view with ingredients. Traditionally, I will discuss the spice using its origin, nutritional facts and recipes as guidelines. Unlike other Food Profile posts, I decided to add a new sub-section about how we distinguish a herb from a spice. Please do comment below if you think anything can be improved! Cheers.


1) Origin

Michael McIntyre, the British comedian, did notoriously use a sketch called Spices, talked about condiments and when mentioning of five spice, jokingly said – I am not one spice, I am five spice! I am five times as good as you! I will leave the link to his sketch in the references section below – everyone needs a laugh once in a while anyway. [2]


With such an array of ingredients, let us find out the relevance of this description. It is not certain of the origin of the five spice as a whole, but it is believed that the Chinese wanted a blend of different flavours – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty. [3] Interestingly enough, the orthodox name is five spice, but in fact, there are some companies who use other ingredients and should really name it according to the number of spices utilised. This is because they use cassia (a variant of the cinnamon stick), ginger or nutmeg. [3]


I will, however, discuss three ingredients that I have not previously discussed in my other Food Profile articles – Sichuan pepper corns, fennel seeds and Star anise. You should be able to find cinnamon and garlic articles on my left tab.


1.1) Sichuan pepper corns 

Rather blatant where Sichuan pepper corns comes from, so I will leave that as it is. For those who do not know, Sichuan is a region in the middle of China. Moreover, unlike the black peppercorns which originate from India, these peppercorns were once used extensively in the 15th century to spice dishes up. [4]


1.2) Fennel seeds

Fennel seeds are categorised as a herb and spice. I will add a little section below to help differentiate these two types of food. In Latin, the word foeniculum describes the fennel seed as little hay. It is oral shaped, in a shade of greenish yellow. Although it does originate from Europe, there are many cultivation across Asia and America. It acts as the pungent agent in the Chinese five spice. [5]


1.3) Star anise

Star anise is the English name for the Latin form illiciaceae family, where the Chinese star anise or illicere varum defines as: illicere means to attract since it has a tempting aroma, and verum means authentic. The star anise has been used as a spice and medicine for over 3000 years. Despite much confusion by English privateer Thomas Cavendish, who supposed that the star anise originated from Philippines as he discovered them there. However, they have always existed in Southern China and Indochina. [6]


1.4) Cloves

I initially thought I was writing about garlic cloves – but cloves are in fact a type of flower that originate from the Molucca Islands in Indonesia. It was perceived that the clove was first used by the Chinese to help freshen the Chinese Emperor’s breathe. Not surprising when China literally translates as the centre country. As clove was such a profitable enterprise, you had your traditional imperial competition, particularly from the Dutch imperialists against other powers. [7]


2) Nutritional facts

Evidently, as there are five spices and salt to make up the Chinese five spice – I will need to dissect each and every single one of them to explain their nutritional facts.


2.1) Sichuan pepper corns

The Sichuan pepper corn is very popular amongst Asian cuisines, and provides many different types of nutrients – as it is rich in essential oils, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. It has a distinct citric flavour, which comes from terpenes like citronellal; and dipentene, which adds to the spiciness found on its outer shell. Like the fennel seeds, the peppercorn hepls with digestion as it releases intestinal juice in the gut. [8]


2.2) Cinnamon

Please do check out my full article on cinnamon – another edition of the Food Profile: The Spice World.


2.3) Fennel seeds

The fennel seed is used as a diuretic, or one that forces excess urine from the body. Throughout history, the fennel seed is known to improve vision, be an antioxidant and anti-flatulent, essentially removing stomach cramps and interestingly enough, prevents muscle spasms. [9] It is known to provide dietary fibre and helping the absorption of water. Furthermore, fennel seeds consist of many minerals like copper, iron and zinc. Copper helps with the production of red blood cells, iron aids red blood cell formation, and finally, zinc regulates growth, development and digestion. You get the idea. [9]


2.4) Star anise

Similar to the fennel seeds, the star anise helps to provide a stimulating effect in the digestive system, preventing stomach discomfort, indigestion. Furthermore, star anise, surprisingly, helps with respitory problems – particularly bronchitis and coughing. [6]


2.5) Cloves

Like other spices here, the clove is a source to aid the body with many different properties. For example, it helps with anti-inflammatory and anti-constipation. Moreover, as it has some relative amount of vitamin A, the clove is known to have antioxidant properties, and also crucial membranes for night vision in general. Furthermore, it is known to be rich in vitamin C and the essential oil eugenol, which in turn, help with the immune system and antiseptic properties, ultimately helping to improve the overall dental and skin health of one’s body. [10]


3) Recipes

With salt and Sichuan pepper corns as main components of five spice, it is very difficult to find the right balance to create a sweet dish. It is more common to make savoury plates of food consisting mainly of meats and vegetables. Below, I have provided you with two simple recipe ideas – one for meats, and the other for your greens. However, individually, you could use cinammon or star anise individually as main ingredients for desserts.


3.1) Meat recipe

There are two main ways to use the Chinese five spice – either the Chinese or the Vietnamese method. Below I have provided two meat marinades:


3.1.1) Chinese marinade – [11] 

Depending on how many people there are, I would suggest you devise the right quantity of meat.


250g beef cut – mince, brisket, loin, shoulder

3 tablespoons of dark soy sauce

1 small section of ginger

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoons of sugar

2 teapoons of Chinese five spice powder

2 teaspoons of corn starch


3.1.2) Vietnamese marinade – [12]

400g of chicken leg or breast

3 tablespoons of dark soy sauce

1 small section of ginger

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoons of sugar

2 teapoons of Chinese five spice powder

2 teaspoons of corn starch

2 shallots

A third of a stalk of coriander leaves

2 tablespoons of fish sauce


The main difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese marinades are that one includes more fish sauce – it is an alternative of incorporating more protein and flavour into the dish itself. You can switch between different types of meats and to add more five spice powder if you want more heat. Do make sure you marinate your meat for at least 30 minutes so all the flavours soak into the flesh itself. 


3.2) Vegetarian recipe – [13] 

Chinese stir-fried shrimp and broccoli noodle – a very simple recipe that only needs your traditional ingredients in a stir-fry. I would highly recommend using a wok in this procedure.



Drizzle of sunflower/vegetable oil

500g cellophane noodles/vemicelli noodles/egg noodles

1 garlic clove

2 shallots

1 whole stalk of broccoli

Half a carrot

Half a cabbage

A third of a stalk of coriander leaves

1 medium red chili pepper

Light soy sauce

Salt and pepper



200g of shrimps

3 tablespoons of dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons of sesame oil

1 small section of ginger

1 tablespoon of garlic paste

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoons of sugar

2 teapoons of Chinese five spice powder

2 teaspoons of corn starch

2 tablespoons of fish sauce


So you must marinate your shrimp as you saw above and let marinade for 30 minutes. Then wash your vegetables and cut it length-wise. In a wok, heat up on a medium high heat, some oil. After around 3 minutes, add your chopped garlic and onion. When they become sautéed, add in the shrimps and the noodles. Note that you can vary with the type of noodles you use. Add in some light soy sauce for colour and let fry for a bit. Place the vegetables into the wok and cook until a bit soft – make sure it still has a crunch, you want a mixture of textures in this dish. Finally, finish off by adding your garnish of chilies and coriander.


4) How to differentiate a herb from a spice? 

Many people use these two words interchangeably, so we must be aware of these uses specifically even though this has been an umbrella term. Herbs and spice can be different parts of the plant – which can be leaves, seeds, bark, fruits, flowers…It really depends on which plant that are considered fresh or dried. [14] Herbs are generally considered as leafy plants like basil, oregano, thyme found in temperate countries, whereas, spices are cinnamon, fennel seeds, cumin which are commonly cultivated in tropical countries. [15]


In effect, the Chinese five spice is a mixture of ancient spices, from your more traditional cinnamon, to your more exotic cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds and star anise. All these individual spices all have anti-inflammatory and relieving properties, and a great way to bring some variety to your best Sunday meat roast. Moreover, I thought it would be a decent idea to remember how to distinguish the interchangeable terms herb and spices, despite the close similarity in definition – do note it really depends on which type of ingredient we are observing. Finally, I have implemented some simple Oriental recipes that you could use to bring in some variety and inspiration – they are all pretty similar in terms of marinade. Thus, for my next few posts, I will try to find a more Western or foreign ingredient to analyse and dissect. Hope you enjoyed your read here, and stay tuned, because I am hoping to publish a politico-historical piece soon enough! See you next time on Speaking Seb! 🙂



















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