Before the Crusades, much of Medieval Europe ate bland, bad food. It was not always the case, of course, but take England, for example. The history of English cuisine — while certainly containing some delightful highlights — reveals food not exactly known for its rich, spicy, complex flavors: think lots of boiled vegetables and bits of boiled meat without seasoning. And while Eastern spices were known in Medieval Europe, they were not very common. The most common was probably black pepper, and it was often used for medicinal reasons.
When the knights of the Crusades went eastward, they encountered a culture and a cuisine unlike anything they had ever known. It is unfortunate that this ersatz cultural exchange was in the context of bloody war, because the knights brought back many wonderful things that have since greatly enhanced Western culture. One of these things is spices. Suddenly, food had flavor! It had color! It had delicious aromas!
The technical definition of a spice necessitates that it be the dried (usually ground) version of a former plant, except for leafy, green plants, which when used fresh, are called herbs. Spices can come from any part of a plant, including the root, the bark, the stems, and the seed. Spices have traditionally been used to preserve food, to color it, and to flavor it. When used in larger amounts, they can also cover up other flavors in the food. I find it particularly difficult to describe the flavor of spices and herbs, since almost each one has its own unique flavor that nothing else has. So I sometimes explain the flavor of spices by comparing them to certain types of people.
Spices are used liberally in Eastern cuisine, and some of them have become famous worldwide. For example, Indian turmeric, a bright yellow, musky-tasting spice, is the basis of many yellow curries and other dishes across India. Another famous spice, or rather spice blend, is Chinese five-spice powder (五香粉). I have found that five-spice is not used much in Chinese homes, but rather in fancier dishes in restaurants. But it is quite famous, and it adds a pungent flavor to many dishes.
As you might guess by the name, Chinese five-spice powder is a mixture of five different spices. They are: star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn, and fennel seeds. In Western cuisine, these five spices would not normally be used together. Their flavor profiles are so different, that it is hard to imagine that they would work well together. But they really do.
1. Star Anise.
The first component of Chinese five-spice powder is ground star anise, which is related to fennel. This beautifully geometric fruit of an evergreen tree gives a very strong licorice flavor. I wish there were better words to describe the star anise flavor, but licorice is actually perfect. If you have ever tasted licorice, then you know exactly what star anise tastes like. The only difference, I would say, is that the spice does not have any of the sweetness (sugar) of the candy.
Star anise is like your little cousin. He is young, and excited about life: the colors, the smells, the new situations and people. He loves to take you to the beach and run around barefoot, shrieking with delight. He is sharp and new, fresh but slightly piercing.
Cloves are like your, loud, super-high-energy friend with a really funny sense of humor: in small doses he is great, but spend too much time with him, and you want to pull your hair out. So it is with cloves. I believe that cloves are the steroid-taking bodybuilders of spices. They must be appreciated very sparingly. And in Chinese five-spice mixes, the spices are not simply mixed in equal parts. They are weighted for their individual characteristics. So clove comes in last in terms of volume.
Cinnamon (including the Chinese version) comes from the inner bark of a certain evergreen tree. Cinnamon has a musky, naturally-sweet smell and flavor, that is also very complex and exotic. Cinnamon goes well with both savory and sweet dishes. To me, cinnamon is that free-spirited, former-hippie aunt. She never settled down with a family, instead traveling the world and exploring exotic, foreign lands. She is dating a different man every month, and she randomly shows up at your house for a visit, usually bearing some strange gift from a place far away. Yet because she lacks the stability of a family, it is difficult to deal with her without the support of other people (spices).
Cinnamon is often used with lamb meat in stews found in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The spice’s floral element pairs well with lamb and other meats with stronger, broader flavors. Likewise, cinnamon is a prime ingredient in many English puddings, and Western pastries.
4. Sichuan Peppercorn.
When I first moved Beijing, I met a colleague named Nelson. He was a great guy, and he took me out for my first real Chinese lunch to welcome me. Since he had been living in Beijing before me, he gave me help and advice on many things. But I distinctly remember his warming about Sichuan peppercorns: “If you see these little peppercorns in your food, avoid them. We call them deathballs.” He told me that I would recognize them because they made your mouth numb.
Well, Nelson was correct. Sichuan peppercorns are really seeds of a certain tree. They produce a sharp, citrus flavor, combined with a hint of minty undertones. But what makes them famous is their content of 3% hydroxy alpha sanshool, a chemical compound that temporarily numbs the nerves that it touches. So when you eat these peppercorns, parts of your mouth become tingly and numb. It is prized in Sichuan Province as a compliment to extremely spicy food (for which Sichuan is known). It numbs the mouth slightly, to allow for greater amounts of chili peppers to be eaten.
This numbing sensation is quite odd and disquieting. The natural citrus and spearmint elements of the peppercorn’s flavor is both intensified, and diminished, by the numbing experience. The parts of your mouth that the peppercorn has touched, become very tingly, feeling like your arm or leg does when the circulation is temporarily cut off from sleeping on it. And this tingly numbness brings with it a very peppery element as well. To me, the Sichuan peppercorn is that person with whom you have had a love-hate relationship. Sometimes the love is so good that it offsets the heat of passion and pain. But other times, you clash so much that you are temporarily miserable, but you always make up in the end.
5. Fennel Seeds.
All parts of the fennel plant are used for culinary purposes. The rather feathery leaves are minced fresh as an herb, as is the lower bulb, and the seeds are ground as a spice. In Indian and Pakistani cuisine, bright, multicolored, candied fennel seeds are taken after a meal to freshen the breath and cleanse the palate.
What I find most interesting about fennel is that its flavor is very close to that of star anise (see above). It is reminiscent of licorice. But unlike the bright, overwhelming, pseudo-sweet flavor of star anise, fennel has a smoother, more complex and earthy, more elegant flavor. Whereas star anise is your rambunctious little cousin, fennel is your wealthy, sophisticated uncle. He lives in a very large mansion in the country, and he smokes pipes in a smoking jacket in the evening, after sipping cognac while reading classical literature. Sure, he shares genes with your little cousin, but he is more mature, and much more worldly and sophisticated.
So, when you combine these five seemingly-disparate spices, what happens? What does the end result taste like? Well, imagine that you had a party with the people whom each spice represents. In your living room, with music, drinks, and hors d’œuvre, are: your hyper little cousin; your obnoxious, loud, funny friend; your hippie aunt; your off-and-on love interest; and your wealthy, sophisticated uncle. What in the world could those five possibly have in common? What could they possibly discuss, or find similar interest in?
It is one of those situations where the most unlikely of companions become friends, and in joining together, become something greater than the whole. I believe that it is impossible to truly describe the flavor of Chinese five-spice in English words, without sounding laborious or trite. I suppose I might characterize it as a very earthy, pungent, bright, exotic flavor, but you see, those adjectives are all contradictory. So the best way I know to describe the flavor is to compare it to road traffic in China. Every individual driver seems suicidal and homicidal. He or she just drives with no regard whatsoever to anyone else, zipping around turns without looking, weaving precariously in and out of traffic, ignoring lights, signs, and laws, speeding, and cutting everyone else off regularly. Yet somehow, the system works. People get to work or to their homes, and the system functions as a whole. That, to me, is Chinese five-spice.