Sometimes we all have a plan to make a certain family favorite meal for dinner, before realizing we are missing one vital ingredient. So it is helpful to know how to replace or substitute spice mixes in your recipes.
Chinese five spice has an origin as being a bit of use all spice blend. One which hits all five of the areas for taste that we humans have. Bitter, Sweet, Sour, Savory (umami) and salty. There is no one specific blend and it has been adapted as it moves through Asia over the decades.
Although there is no one specific recipe here are the main spices that are used and ones you will find in the most popular ready made mixes available.
What Are The Spices In Chinese 5 Spice?
It is important to know what your spice mixes are made of in order to then be able to replace them in cooking.
The distinctive licorice or anise like flavor of Chinese five spice powder comes from Star Anise and the Fennel Seeds. The musky taste is Cloves and Szechuan Pepper and the final woody layer of taste is from cinnamon. These spices combine to give the authentic taste so well used in Oriental cooking.
The star anise can be overpowering for some people and this is why it is helpful to make up your own version and tweak the ratios to suit your family.
Alternatives To Chinese 5 Spice Powder
I make up a very rough and ready egg fried rice with leftover rice and vegetables and use Chinese 5 spice powder in the egg mix If I have leftovers and no spice mix I have a few tricks that are passable substitutions. I hope you find them useful too.
If you run out of Chinese five spice you can make your own using equal parts peppercorns, anise, fennel seeds, ground cinnamon and cloves. Alternatively you can use dillweed as a garnish and cinnamon sticks, a shot of ouzo or sambuca, or fresh chervil to give the anise flavor.
There are a few little tricks to using each of these replacements.
How To Substitute Chinese 5 Spice
The five spices of Chinese 5 spice powder combine to give you a sweet, sour, bitter, savory (umami) and salty flavor. As such there is some variation found within the mixes available. In Southern China for instance you may find a more citrusy freshness by using orange peel. You are looking to recreate that here. I find that using a mix of these will help.
1. Make Your Own Blend
Quite often it is easier to keep the ingredients for spice blends in your cupboard, rather then buying premade ones. This means you have a lot of freedom to create a mix as you like it. Chinese 5 spice is about hitting those five main flavors; salty, sweet, sour, savory (umami) & bitter. This is achieved by using Cloves, Fennel seeds, Star Anise, Cinnamon and peppercorns.
There is no hard and fast rule about ratios. We have a younger family and they find the bitterness of star anise to be unpleasant, so we lower the amount we use. The basic recipe for Chinese 5 Spice is;
2 teaspoons of peppercorns, ground
4 star anise, ground (if you like the licorice kick you can double this)
½ teaspoon ground cloves (a very strong flavor here so go careful to measure accurately)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
2. Fennel & Ginger
The mixture of the five main flavor groups that you get with Chinese five spice can be replicated by using ground fennel and fresh ginger. Go carefully with the ginger though as it is pungent and can give a heat that may not be otherwise present. Ground ginger is a suitable substitute and can be added in the same way as you would do the 5 spice powder.
Combine the ground fennel and ginger with sesame seed oil and rice wine vinegar for the full oomph that Chinese five spice would offer. Splash a bit of soy sauce on as you are finishing for the final flourish of saltiness.
3. Dillweed & Cinnamon Sticks
Dillweed and cinnamon make a good substitute for Chinese five spice, but a little bit of tweaking to how you introduce these ingredients is needed.
Dillweed is the name given to dill leaves and is best used fresh. You can add it to dishes with a lot of liquid and allow it to steep in the juices. Be aware that it will go very limp and look a bit unappealing. Chop it finely to avoid this or use solely as a garnish as you are serving. When you combine it with cinnamon sticks it will give a woodiness and earthiness that you are missing.
4. Sambuca or Ouzo
The aniseed flavor of these spirits is a great substitution for Chinese Five Spice. Add it when you are adding other flavors like rice wine vinegar or sesame oil. Cook it off a little to reduce the alcohol content but retain the flavor.
5. Fresh Chervil
Chervil has the anise flavor of Chinese five spice and therefore makes a suitable replacement, if you are in a pinch. It is best used fresh and you can use as a garnish or even tossed through the rice as a side dish. Really fresh herbs are great to add a last minute layer of flavor, but in this case you can add to a stir fry towards the last minute or so of cooking.
6. Garam Masala & Star Anise
Garam Masala is made using fennel, cinnamon and cloves. This means we can add pepper and star anise to have the basis of Chinese Five Spice. This is a great replacement and you can add as little or as much star anise as you like. The fennel will cover you for some of the anise flavor anyway. I would say in a pinch you can get away with a direct 1:1 swap for garam masala to Chinese 5 Spice.
7. Rice Wine Vinegar, Anise & Cinnamon
You will find that Chinese 5 spice is not easily replaced using this combination but it hits the spot with dishes like Vietnamese beef stew. The combination gives off the sour and sweet straight away as well as the bitterness of the cinnamon. Use celery leaves or lovage leaves to give the saltiness towards the end of cooking.
8. Turmeric, Cardamom & Anise
Chinese 5 spice can be replaced using this combination as they offer the same five tastes. Turmeric is bitter but with a hint of savory as well as the sweet of cardamom and the slight sourness from anise. There is more depth of flavor offered here but it doesn’t overpower the essential idea of hitting the five different tastes.
What Next & Further Reading
Chinese 5 Spice is not a mix that is set in stone. You can be creative to get those five distinct flavor profiles using whichever ingredients you have to hand in your spice rack. Don’t forget that you can use fresh herbs as well as spirits and vinegars to enhance the flavor too.
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