1996 / 10月
Daisy Hsieh /photos courtesy of Diago Chiu /tr. by Robert Taylor
Here's something almost any Chinese who has studied abroad will have done at one time or another: you go down to the butcher's shop and come back with a bagful of feet, wings and innards-all the bits that westerners don't like-from chickens, ducks, cows and pigs. You parboil them in water, then dump the whole lot into a pan of dark, spicy stewing gravy to simmer away on a tiny flame for an hour or so, until the meaty aroma spreads far and wide, and not only Chinese are irresistibly drawn to it, but even uninitiated foreigners get the urge to cadge a morsel to taste. This is a dish which spares the pocket, pleases the palate and nourishes the body-who could ask for anything more?
Apart from soy sauce, the most vital ingredient in that magical pan of stewing gravy, which has the mysterious power to transform castoffs into delicacies, is a little white muslin bag containing "five-spice." What universe is enclosed inside that little bag?
Luwei-spicy meat stew-has to be one of the most economical, substantial and democratic of all the dishes known to Chinese cuisine. Whether it be ordinary home cooking, cold starters in a restaurant banquet, or snacks at a night-market food stall, it is sure to be on the menu.
The culture of spice-stewed meat in China reaches far back into history. Just when it first originated no-one knows, but in early times it was actually a dish which appeared on wealthy tables. Later, so the story goes, when the Song dynasty gourmet and literary giant Su Dongpo was demoted and sent to serve as an official at Huanggang in Hubei Province, to satisfy his palate in that remote, impoverished place he used cheap local pork to make his own unique version of spice-stewed meat. His recipe was passed down and grew popular, and came to be known as Dongpo Meat; it is considered one of his greatest "achievements in office." The Dongpo Meat which numbers among the specialties of today's Jiangsu and Zhejiang-style restaurants is actually nothing more or less than a refined version of spice-stewed or red-braised pork.
Su Dongpo even wrote a poem about it: "Huangzhou's fine pork, as cheap as manure. Rich folk won't touch it, poor folk can't cook it. But on a slow flame, with a little water, by and by it takes a fine flavor. Eat a bowl each day on rising, and you'll be so full, you won't have a care in the world." This bears an uncanny resemblance to the feelings of Chinese students abroad when treating themselves to a budget feast of luwei.
Because "five-spice" goes so well with meat, it has become the most widely-used natural seasoning in Chinese cooking apart from spring onions, ginger, garlic and chillies. In recent times, as Chinese people have emigrated overseas, five-spice has followed them far around the world to become the most representative of Chinese seasonings.
Which are the famous five?
As the name suggests, five-spice is made up of five seasonings. But which five spices are they?
Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel seed and cloves are the most commonly used ingredients in five-spice. But this is not the only recipe. In some five-spice sachets, chenpi (dried tangerine or orange peel) or liquorice are substituted for one or other of the ingredients.
All these spices are made simply by drying the seeds, fruit or bark of plants.
For instance, Chinese cinnamon (cassia) is made from bark stripped from the trunk and branches of the Chinese cassia tree (Cinnamomum cassia); star anise is the fruit of the star anise tree (Illicium verum), so named because the eight compartments of its seed pod radiate out in a star shape; fennel seed is the rice-grain-sized seed of the fennel plant. Chenpi is rather special, being the dried rind of oranges or tangerines, while liquorice is made from the dried and sliced underground stem and root of the liquorice plant.
Because all these spices are lightweight dry goods which can be easily stored or transported, although they originate from different regions, they are readily available throughout China's vast territory.
In fact, the number of ingredients in five-spice is not necessarily limited to five, but may be increased or reduced as the need arises. "Generally speaking, the ingredients used rarely depart from the ten pungent and fragrant spices of Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, chenpi, liquorice, cloves, cardamom, caoguo [the seed pod of tsaoko cardamom (Amomum tsaoko)] and baizhi [the root of Dahurian angelica (Angelica dahurica)]," says cooking expert Liang Chiung-pai.
So why is it called "five-spice," and not "four-spice" or "six-spice"?
This may have to do with the concept of the "five flavors" which has been current in China since ancient times. In his History of Chinese Food Science, writer Hong Guang-zhu notes that the Chinese have long believed that flavors can be divided into five basic simple types: salty, sour, bitter, pungent and sweet. Combined in different proportions, these five flavors can produce an infinite number of tastes. Later, the term "the five flavors" referred not only to these five basic flavors, but became a habitual name in Chinese for seasonings in general. "For instance, Buddhist cuisine identified the five flavors as milk, cream, raw butter, boiled butter and the rich liquor skimmed from boiled butter, while for Beijing chefs the five flavors are the condiments salt, vinegar, syrup, spring onions with ginger, and rice cooking wine."
Thus five-spice is put together on the basis of the customary concept of the five flavors, but only the more hidebound sort will be limited by this when mixing it.
The butcher's giveaway
When was five-spice first put together in its present combination?
The Qing dynasty dramatist Li Yu (1611-c.1679) once wrote about making a five-spice condiment to mix with cold noodles. But the five seasonings he used were soy sauce, vinegar, finely-chopped Sichuan peppercorns, crushed sesame seeds, and a broth made by boiling bamboo shoots or shitake mushrooms with shrimps-it was not the five-spice used to make spice-stewed meat. Li's five-spice appears to have been similar to the sesame sauce mixture used to flavor noodles today.
In general terms, all seasoning has developed from simple to complex, from individual flavors to composite flavors. Luo Guihuan, a researcher at the mainland Chinese Academia Sinica's Institute of the History of Natural Science, says that prior to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), people were already in the habit of flavoring their food with mixtures of several different ingredients, and from the Han (206 BC-220 AD) to the Tang (618-907), cooks paid more and more attention to the principles of seasoning food, because at that time great advances were made in the domestication of crops. There was a vast increase in the number of high-yielding, high-quality varieties, leading to an improvement in people's eating standards. "In particular, the development and use of oils and flavorings spurred advances in cooking techniques," writes Luo in a paper on the culture of Chinese cuisine.
In the Song-dynasty cookery book Wu Shi Zhongkui Lu (Wu's Record of Wifely Duties), an extraordinary variety of seasonings are used. One recipe for wet fermented soy beans includes nine: star anise, fennel, caoguo, cinnamon, costus root (Saussurea lappa), chenpi, Sichuan peppercorns, dried shredded ginger, and almonds. All the standard five-spice flavorings are among them.
In Eight Discourses on Living, written by Gao Lian in the late Ming dynasty, there is a recipe for meat steamed in clear soup for which the seasoning described is clearly the same as today's five-spice sachets: star anise, fennel, Sichuan peppercorns, caoguo and cinnamon are "wrapped in a fine cloth bag," and placed in the pan to steam with the meat, after which the bag is removed.
From this we can see that the purpose of wrapping the spices in a bag is quite simply to prevent the spice seeds being spread about in the pan, making them difficult to remove, or sticking to the food and affecting its flavor and color.
But, interestingly, it has only been in recent years that five-spice has become widespread on the market in ready-made sachets.
"I remember 15 years or so ago that to buy five-spice we always went to a Chinese herbal medicine shop, where the shopkeeper would make up the mixture on the spot from the individual spices, just like filling a herbal prescription," recalls cookery expert Theresa Lin. It was only when she came to use this mixture at home that she would sew up little gauze bags and measure the mixture into them. Ordinary housewives who didn't want to go to so much trouble made do with star anise and fennel bought at a grocer's shop, which they considered gave a good enough flavor.
But if you wanted to get the full five flavors, you still had to go to a herbal medicine shop, because the Chinese regard these fragrant and pungent spices as medicinal substances, and traditionally they were mainly sold through medicine shops. Later, to sell larger quantities, spice merchants and foodstuff manufacturers commercialized five-spice as a ready-packed product in the little white bags that are now available everywhere. As a convenience to customers and to promote sales, many butcher's shops nowadays throw in a bag of five-spice mixture for free when customers buy meat, just as greengrocers throw in a spring onion. With one sachet for each pound of beef, it's a useful gift which keeps customers happy.
Sichuan peppercorns in bronze vessels
Although a sachet of five-spice has become a typical Chinese seasoning, the five spices inside it did not all enter the Chinese kitchen at the same time, but were acquired one by one as the art of seasoning developed in Chinese cuisine.
Books from around the sixth and fifth centuries BC record the use of Chinese cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorns as seasonings.
The Book of Songs mentions a seasoning made from cinnamon, pepper and rice wine. The Book of Rites describes how in the palaces of the Zhou dynasty, raw ginger and crushed cinnamon were used to spice dried meat. Thus we can see that the idea of removing rankness from meat by seasoning was already current at that time. Ginger is pungent and hot, while cinnamon is sweet and fragrant; mixed together, they can remove any rank taste and sweeten the meat.
In those days, cinnamon was a very expensive spice, because it grew in remote southern regions such as the modern provinces of Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, Guangxi and Guangdong. Thus Zhuangzi recounts a story of "searching for cinnamon" to eat. The slightly later Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. L*, when discussing the fine foods of different localities, names "cinnamon from Zhaoyao"; Zhaoyao was in Hubei.
In the Book of Songs and in Chu Ci (Chu Songs), Sichuan peppercorns are also highly praised and recommended. For instance, in the Book of Songs the abundant fruits of the prickly ash tree are used as a metaphor for numerous sons and grandsons. Meanwhile Chu Ci mentions a "pepper sauce," made by steeping Sichuan peppercorns in vinegar, which like cassia bark wine was used as a sacred ritual offering. In recent excavations of ancient tombs from the Spring and Autumn period, in the tomb of Lady Gouyu, younger sister of Lord Jing (ruled 516-476 BC) of the state of Song, a bronze basin was discovered which contained nothing but a large quantity of Sichuan peppercorns. This is surely the most direct proof one could ask for of the esteem in which our ancestors held spices.
Sichuan peppercorns are rather pungent and hot in taste, and produce a slightly numb and tingling sensation on the tongue. In China they originally came from the region known in ancient times as Qin, which straddled the modern Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Thus they were once called "Qin peppers." Later they found their way into Sichuan and Yunnan, where the local people combined them with other seasonings to produce many distinctive flavors. For instance, "Sichuan pepper oil," made by steeping Sichuan peppercorns in heated oil, is a condiment widely used to flavor cold dishes; Sichuan peppercorns mixed in equal quantities with salt, heated in a pan, then ground to a fine powder, make "Sichuan pepper salt"; and in combination with chilli they produce various other distinctive flavors which have also become trademarks of Sichuan cuisine.
Mix and match
Qinshihuang-the first Qin emperor-created China's first unified empire in 221 BC. To bolster his central political power he worked to develop the road network and improve communications between different areas, and promoted the flow of goods to and from all parts of the country. From the Han to the Tang dynasties this process continued and the crops and cuisines of various regions were intermingled as they developed, becoming ever richer and more diverse. Many spices entered the mainstream of Chinese cooking during that period.
Luo Guihuan notes that from the Han dynasty onwards, scholars who were sent to southern China as officials or who travelled there for pleasure were deeply impressed by the diversity of the crops there, and in a spirit of disseminating useful information, many of them wrote down everything they saw or heard, and recommended southern China's resources to the people of other regions. For a time, works describing exotic plants and goods abounded, most of them concentrating on grains, vegetables and fruits.
Chenpi, which first became popular in the south along the Yangtze river, is a typical example of a southern product which moved north. Chenpi is made by drying the peel of fresh tangerines or oranges, and these grow south of the Yangtze. The saying goes that "tangerines grown beyond the Huai River are small and dry." Tangerines and oranges need the humid climate and fertile soils of the south to produce fragrant, sweet and juicy fruits. If they are transplanted north of the Huai River (which flows West to East halfway between the Yangtze and the Yellow River), the soil and climate don't suit them, and they only produce dry and undersized fruits.
Chenpi preserves the sweet flavor and moistness of the fruit, along with a hint of bitterness and astringency (due to the citral it contains). When used in cooking, apart from adding the fragrance of fruit to the dish, it also helps meat to become tender more quickly. In Guangdong Province, which produces great quantities of large tangerines, cooks love to use chenpi. One dish they make of beef marinated with chenpi tastes rather like the "fruit-juice beef jerky" which is now in vogue.
As various dynasties strove to enlarge their territories and promote foreign trade, produce came into China from the lands to the West in modern Gansu, Xinjiang and Central Asia, as well as from Southeast Asia. Fennel was brought to China's central plain from what is now Ningxia Province, where the peoples of the region used it to remove rankness from roast mutton and beef.
Star anise takes pride of place
The thriving foreign trade of the Tang and Song dynasties brought large quantities of spices such as star anise, cloves and cardamom into China from Southeast Asia.
Of these, star anise was the one most successfully assimilated. Star anise also grew in China, but the seeds were smaller and the flavor not strong enough, so people of the time preferred the imported variety.
Ben Cao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica, an encyclopedic 16th-century herbal pharmacopoeia), records that the star anise imported by ship had larger and fuller seed pods, a deeper color and a sweeter flavor, and was popularly known as "ship aniseed." Later the imported variety was introduced into China and planted widely, and today star anise has become a typical Chinese product: mainland China is now the world's largest exporter of star anise.
Star anise has a pungent aroma and strong flavor, and is the spice among the five-spice ingredients which is most frequently used on its own. Furthermore, it can even be used as a stand-in for five-spice when the other ingredients are not available. Thus one can say that it plays the starring role in five-spice.
Furthermore, to Chinese people's way of thinking foodstuffs are closely related to medicinal drugs, and it is often hard to draw any clear line between them-particularly as the Chinese not only pay attention to the taste of their food, but also set great store by its nutritive and curative properties. Thus, says Theresa Lin, "when cooking we put in a few curative medicinal substances to help keep us healthy." For instance, liquorice, caoguo and baizhi were used as medicines before they found their way into the cooking pot as spices.
However, looking from the perspective of modern nutritional science, Li Chin-feng, director of the Graduate Institute of Food Science and Technology at National Taiwan University, opines that these substances contain very little in the way of nutrients, and when used as cooking spices they are added in such small quantities that apart from improving flavor and stimulating the appetite, they do not really provide the body with any nutritional value to speak of.
As far as the form in which spices are used is concerned, apart from being used directly in their original dried state, they may also be ground into a powder. Eight Discourses on Living describes a complex spice-stewed meat recipe in which 13 spices including liquorice, cinnamon, baizhi, ginger and Sichuan peppercorns are mixed and ground to a fine powder before use.
Finely-ground five-spice powder has a wide range of uses, particularly for foods cooked in large quantities. For instance, Theresa Lin reveals that the "Su's Smoked Fish" sold at a stall in Taipei's Nanmen Market is made by cutting slices from the middle section of grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), deep frying them, steeping them in a marinade mixed from five-spice powder and sugar, and then smoking them, which makes them particularly flavorsome.
But five-spice powder's deep brownish color makes it more suitable for use in darker colored dishes. When spices are ground, the heat of cooking quickly releases their flavor, so one must be very careful not to use too much, otherwise the taste may become so strong as to be unpleasant.
Not grabbing the limelight
In fact, a trend has appeared in today's cuisine for simplicity and a return to nature. Many cooking experts in Taiwan say that except when stewing a large pot of luwei, they don't like to mix many different spices, preferring instead to choose the most suitable individual spices for the particular ingredients.
Liang Chiung-pai suggests reducing seasonings to the minimum, to avoid the spices stealing the limelight by overshadowing the flavor of the food itself. "That goes especially for spices derived from medicinal herbs-if you don't get the amount just right you end up with a medicinal flavor, and you won't taste the fresh flavor of the actual food."
When Theresa Lin uses spices, she measures them "grain by grain." "For shoulder of pork braised in soy sauce I only use one-and-a-half seed pods of star anise; for a pan of beef boiled in clear broth I only use one pod; and for a mala ("tingly-hot") hotpot, you can't use more than one spoonful of Sichuan peppercorns." She says that even for luwei, you have to take out the sachet of spices after a while. If you leave it in the broth too long, it will turn bitter.
"In the past, butchery techniques were not very advanced, so there was a lot of blood left in meat and it tended to smell rank. Also, because there was no refrigeration, meat could go bad quickly, and you needed heavy flavorings to cover the off taste." Kao Chin-yi, deputy head chef in the Sichuan and Yangzhou cuisine section at Taipei's Grand Hotel says that the way meat is prepared today, such off flavors are much less likely, so of course the amount of spice can be reduced.
One of his own specialties is a "galan-tine," in which many strips of meat are bound together into a long loaf. To stew the meat, instead of the traditional sachet of strong spices, Kao only uses a few pods of star anise and a dash of Sichuan peppercorns and black pepper. To make up for the missing spices he adds rather more spring onions, ginger and garlic, to give the meat more of the light aroma of fresh vegetables.
To use the opening words of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms: "Such is the way of the world: that which has been long together must separate, and that which has been long apart must be joined together." Has fate finally decreed that the five spices, which have been so long together, must go their separate ways? However that may turn out, the several thousand years' process by which the five spices were blended harmoniously together is as fascinating as the spices themselves are flavorsome. 偕
Source: Hui Chieh Chuang Co.
The "five spices," along with spring onions, ginger, garlic and chillies have had a lot to do with the popularity which Chinese cuisine has gained around the world.
The five spices of five-spice are all directly derived from plants. Pictured here are the umbrella-shaped flower clusters of the fennel plant, Foeniculum vulgare. (photo by Cheng Yuan-chun)
The spices required for making luwei, which once could only be bought at herbal medicine shops, have now been commercialized and are widely available in supermarkets and grocery stores.
The bark of the Chinese cassia tree's trunk and branches can be peeled off and dried to make Chinese cinnamon, and cassia oil can be extracted from the remaining twigs and leaves. The tree has great economic value. (photo by Cheng Yuan-chun)
The spice-stewed foods at night-market stalls are not only tasty and good value for money, but come in all kinds of varieties guaranteed to set your mouth watering.
When making his speciality, galantine, Deputy Head Chef Kao Chin-yi of the Sichuan and Yangzhou cuisine section at Taipei's Grand Hotel deliberately uses less five-spice and more fresh spring onion, ginger, garlic and chilli than is usual, to bring out the meat's own natural flavor.