中國「五香」傳奇

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1996 / 10月

文‧謝淑芬 圖‧邱瑞金



當過留學生的人大概都有這樣的經驗:到肉品店裡買回一大袋老外不愛、價格便宜的雞鴨牛羊豬的腳、翅、內臟,用滾水燙過以後,再一股腦丟進一鍋黑黝黝的滷汁中,細火慢燉幾怳斂虧寣A肉香四溢,不但老中視為珍饈,不知情的老外也忍不住討塊嚐嚐,於是荷包、營養兼顧,裡子、面子怢活C

那鍋「化腐朽為神奇」的滷汁原料,除了醬油之外,最不可或缺的,還有一個小小的白布囊,喚作「五香」。

這囊中乾坤為何?

滷味,在中國菜裡,大概可以算是最經濟實惠且大眾化的菜餚,從家中的日常菜色,到餐廳宴席的冷盤前菜,乃至夜市攤販的小吃零嘴,都少不了它。

中國的滷肉文化淵遠流長,起於何時雖不可考,但它在早期偏屬富貴人家的盤飧。據說宋朝的大文豪蘇東坡被貶謫到湖北黃崗做官時,在那個地處偏僻、物產貧瘠的地方,為了滿足口慾,講究飲食的他,便利用當地便宜的豬肉,研製出獨特的燉肉,他的做法傳衍、普及開來,被人稱為「東坡肉」,成為任內的「德政」之一。今天江浙館主打菜之一的東坡肉,說穿了就是精緻的滷肉或紅燒肉。

他為此作了一首詩:「黃州好豬肉,價賤如糞土,富者不肯喫,貧者不解煮,慢著火,少著水,火候足時他自美,每日起來打一碗,飽得自家君莫管。」這倒與中國留學生在海外以滷肉打牙祭的情形頗相似。

由於能和肉品巧妙搭配,「五香」在中國烹飪裡,成了蔥薑蒜辣椒之外,使用最廣的天然香料,近代隨著華人移民,五香也遠颺海外,成為中國香料的典型代表。

 五味生萬味

五香,顧名思義,指五種香料,是哪五種呢?

桂皮、花椒、八角、小茴香、丁香,是製作五香較常見的原料。然而,這不是五香的唯一組合,有的五香包會用陳皮、甘草來替換。

這些材料都是採自天然植物的種籽、果實和樹皮,乾燥製成。

譬如,桂皮為肉桂樹枝幹剝取下來的皮;八角是大茴香樹的果實,因為果實有八瓣,呈放射狀,看起來像星星,所以叫做八角,又叫大茴香和大料;小茴香則是另一種茴香樹結出的種籽,呈傘狀型,因為種籽顆粒小如稻米,所以名為小茴香。比較特殊的是陳皮,它是柑橘的果皮;甘草則是甘草樹的地下莖和根,經乾燥後切片而成。

由於這些香料都是輕便的乾貨,利於貯存和運輸,所以雖然來自不同的產地,卻能夠物流交通,在幅員遼闊的中國境內普及盛行。

其實,五香的內容種類並不限定為五種,它可以視所需增減。「大致說來,使用的材料範圍不出花椒、八角、桂皮、小茴香、陳皮、甘草、丁香、荳蔻、草果、白芷抮堥祗赫ヾA」烹飪專家梁瓊白指出。

那麼,為什麼要稱為「五香」,而非「四香」或「六香」呢?

這可能與中國自古流行的「五味學說」有關。《中國食品科技史》作者洪光住指出,中國自古認為味道可以區分為五種基本單味,即:鹹、酸、苦、辛、甜,即為「五味」,經過調味之後,五味可以生萬味。日後,五味雖然不僅指這五種單味,也變為中國概稱調味的慣用數字。「例如,佛家以乳味、酪味、生酥味、熟酥味、醍醐味為五味;……北京廚師以鹹鹽、食醋、飴蜜、蔥薑、料酒五種調味料為五味。」

五香,也是基於五味的習慣組合而成,只是調配時,不拘泥的人可不受所限。

買牛肉,送「五香包」

至於「五香」是什麼時候被湊在一起,組合而成?

清代的戲劇家李漁曾有調製五香佐料來拌麵的記述,可是,他用的五香原料是醬油、醋、椒末、芝麻屑,以及筍或香菇煮蝦子而成的鮮汁,而非滷肉用的五香,看起來,他的五香比較像現今拌麻醬麵的佐料。

大凡調味都是由簡入繁,由單味而趨向複合味,香料混合使用的情形也是如此。大陸中國科學院自然科學史研究所研究員羅桂環指出,先秦時代人們即有將數種材料混合調味的飲食習慣,自漢唐以降,烹飪更講究調和原則,因為當時作物馴化成績顯著,產量高、品質佳的種類大量增加,改善了人們的飲食狀況。「尤其油料和香料的發展和使用,更推動了烹調技藝的進步,」羅桂環在一篇有關中國飲食文化的報告中寫道。

宋朝出版的食譜《吳氏中饋錄》,其中使用的佐料種類已非常繁複。有一帖「水豆豉法」所用的香料,共有八角、小茴香、草果、桂皮、木香、陳皮、花椒、乾薑絲、杏仁九種,五香都在其中。

明朝末年高濂撰寫的「遵生八牋」裡,有一道「清蒸肉」的佐料,分明就是如今的五香包——將八角、小茴香、花椒、草果、桂皮五味「用稀布包作一包」,放進鍋內蒸肉,蒸好後,將包料去之。

由此可見,把香料包起來的目的,無非怕這些顆粒狀的香料散在鍋中,不方便撈除,或是沾黏菜餚,影響食物的味道和色澤。

有趣的是,這個布袋包裝的形態,直到近年才在市面上流行。

「記得抴X年前買五香都是上中藥舖去,請老闆像捉中藥方子一樣,單樣、單味的現場調配而成,」烹飪專家林慧懿回憶,買回家使用時,自己才以紗布縫個小口袋,將材料裝成包。而不那麼講究的一般家庭主婦,就在雜貨舖裡買點八角、茴香,也覺口味不錯。

但要備齊五香,還是得上中藥舖,因為中國人視這些香辛料為藥材,傳統的流通市場以藥舖為主。後來香料商或食品業者為了大量銷售,把五香商品化,加工包裝成現今四處可購得的小白包囊模樣。為講求便利和促銷,現在不少肉品店在客人買肉時,還會主動附送五香料理包,像買菜順便送幾根蔥一樣,一斤牛肉配一個料理包,既實惠又貼心。

青銅器盛花椒

五香包雖已成為典型的中國調味料,但五香卻並非同時進入中國庖廚,而是隨著中國飲食調味的發展漸次湊齊。

在先秦時代(公元前五、六世紀)的書籍裡,就發現使用肉桂和花椒來調味的記錄。

《詩經》裡曾出現用桂皮、胡椒和酒混合製成的調料。《禮記》則記載周朝的宮廷用生薑和桂屑來調製肉乾:「脯捶而施薑桂,曰 脩。」當時已有「肉如果不加薑桂等香料就會有腥味」的觀念。生薑辛辣,肉桂甜香,二者搭配,既去腥、又提香。

肉桂在當時算是相當昂貴的香料,因為它的產地在偏遠的南方,如湖北、安徽、浙江、廣西、廣東等省分,所以,《莊子》一書裡,有求食肉桂的記述。稍晚的《呂氏春秋》談論地方美食時,更點名「招搖之桂」,招搖,即在湖北。

花椒在《詩經》和《楚辭》裡也備受讚美與推崇。譬如,花椒樹結的果實繁茂眾多,在《詩經》裡就被引申來比喻子孫繁衍。《楚辭》則提到用花椒泡醋而成的「椒漿」,和桂酒一樣,是祭祀的聖品。近代挖掘出的春秋時代古墓中,宋景公的妹妹勾敔夫人墓裡,就發現了一只盛有大半盒花椒的青銅盆子,可說是老祖宗也愛香料的最直接證據。

花椒的味道偏辛辣,會讓舌頭產生一點麻的感覺,在中國,它的原產地在古稱為「秦」的陝西、甘肅省一帶,故又叫「秦椒」。後來傳入四川、雲南,被當地人結合其他調味料,衍生出許多特殊的風味。像用熱油泡熬花椒而成的「花椒油」,是運用廣泛的涼拌調料;將同等份的花椒與食鹽拌炒後,碾細成粉末,就是「花椒鹽」;花椒加辣椒,更可以製出麻辣、糊辣和怪味等口味,現在都成為四川菜的招牌了。

南來北往成一家

秦始皇建立了中國第一個統一的帝國,為了鞏固中央政權,致力發展交通,加強了各地的聯繫,促進東西南北物產的交流。再經過漢、唐朝的不斷強化,各地農產作物和飲食文化更形交融發展,內容日漸豐富多樣,許多香料也在這時匯入中國餐飲主流。

羅桂環指出,漢朝以降,往華南做官或遊歷的學者,深感當地作物種類的繁多,抱著經世濟物的心理,紛紛記下所見所聞,以對其他地方推薦南方資源。一時間各種「異物誌」、「草物狀」等著作層出不窮,這些著作所記的內容大部分就是糧食和蔬果。

原盛行於南方長江流域的陳皮即為南物北移的代表。陳皮是新鮮柑橘剝下的皮乾燥製成,柑橘的產地為長江流域以南,俗謂「橘逾淮而為枳」,柑橘之類的植物較適合在雨多土沃的南方種植,結出的果實才香甜多汁,若移植到淮河以北,就水土不服,結成乾小的枳。

陳皮的味道保留了水果的甜潤,外帶一絲苦澀(這是其中檸檬醛成份的作用),以之入菜,除了讓菜餚添加果香味,還可以將肉早點燉爛。盛產大桔的廣東,烹調時特別愛用陳皮,有一道用陳皮醃的牛肉,吃起來就像今天的果汁牛肉干。

與此同時,各朝代也積極的擴大疆土與國外貿易,西域、回疆、中亞、東南亞的物產因此紛至沓來。小茴香即從西域傳入中原,它原產於寧夏省,是當地人烤牛羊肉用的香料,香氣可以驅除牛羊肉的腥羶氣味。

「八角」中國化,獨拔頭籌

唐朝和宋朝興盛的海外貿易,又舶來大量的東南亞香料,如八角、丁香和荳蔻。

其中以八角「歸化」得最成功。雖然中國也產八角,可是顆粒較小,且味道不夠濃厚,因此,當時人喜歡用進口貨色。

《本草綱目》記載,從異國舶來的八角,果實大而飽滿,色澤較深,味道更甜,俗呼「舶茴香」。後來品種引入中國,廣泛種植,八角如今反成為中國的特產,中國大陸目前仍為八角最主要的輸出地。

八角的氣與味都相當濃烈,它也成了五香中最常被單獨使用的香料,甚至當五香不能齊備時,可以只用一味八角替代,算是五香中的主角。

此外,在中國人的觀念裡,食材與藥材的關係緊密,二者常常難以區分,尤其中國人飲食不但注重口味,也講求兼具調養治療的功效,所以,「會在烹飪中放些具有療效的藥材,以利養生,」林慧懿表示,像甘草、草果、白芷便是從藥材進入鼎鼐,用作香料。

不過,若以現代營養學來看,台灣大學食品科技研究所所長李錦楓認為,這些材料的營養成份很低,當作烹飪香料使用時,它們的用量很少,除了增加味道、刺激食慾之外,其實已談不上可以提供人體多少營養價值。

香料的形態,除了直接使用乾燥而成的原材料,也有加工研磨成粉末狀。在《遵生八牋》裡面有一道手工繁複的滷肉,用的滷料方子就是將甘草、桂皮、白芷、薑、花椒等怳T味香料混合,研磨成細粉使用。

研磨成粉的五香,運用範圍也相當廣泛,尤其是大量烹製的食品。林慧懿透露,在台北南門市場有一個攤位賣的「蘇氏燻魚」,就是將草魚的中段部位切片,炸過後,用五香粉和糖粉調汁浸泡再燻製而成,味道特別香。

但是,五香粉的色澤偏深褐色,比較適合用在顏色較深的菜餚中。由於經過研磨,一經加熱,香氣很容易揮發出來,所以使用時要嚴格控制份量,否則味道過於濃烈,反而不美。

喧賓不奪主

其實,現今的餐飲文化出現化繁約簡、回歸自然的趨勢,國內許多烹飪專家都表示,除了滷大鍋菜之外,不大喜歡將多樣香料混合使用,而是針對原材料的特性,擇取最適合的來調味。

梁瓊白即主張香辛調料宜減至最少量,以免喧賓奪主,壓抑掉菜餚的本味,「特別是取自藥材的香料,用量一沒拿捏好,就會產生藥味,顯不出食物的鮮美。」

林慧懿用香料時,也是以「顆粒」來計算,「一個紅燒蹄膀只能放一顆半八角;清燉牛肉一鍋則只需一顆八角;一個麻辣鍋,花椒用量不能超過一匙,」她表示,即使滷肉,到一定時候就要把滷包撈掉,不能讓香料一直浸泡在湯汁裡,否則會轉呈苦味。

「以前的屠宰技術比較不發達,使得肉品的血水重,而有腥羶味,加上沒有冷藏設備,容易變質,所以需要加重香料來掩蓋異味,」台北圓山大飯店川揚菜的副主廚高進益表示,如今的肉品經過處理,這些氣味已經減少很多,香料用量自然可以遞減。

他有一道拿手菜「大紮肉」,將幾塊肉條組合、捆紮成圓筒狀,滷的時候一改傳統的滷包重料,只用幾顆八角和少許的花椒、胡椒,取而代之的,是較多的蔥薑蒜,讓肉品富含新鮮蔬菜的清香。

所謂「天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分」,五香是否也將面臨合久必分的命運?不論如何,經過了幾千年的演嬗,才把五香湊齊融合,這滋味已夠深遠。

p.52

1.小茴香

2.草果

3.桂皮

4.丁香

5.陳皮

6.甘草

7.花椒

8.川芎

9.八角

資料來源:惠結莊蔘茸公司

p.53

五香和蔥薑蒜辣椒,為中國料理最常用的香料,尤其在滷菜時,五香是不可或缺的要角。

p.54

五香的材料都來自天然植物。圖為小茴香的傘狀花序。(鄭元春攝)

p.55

以前要在中藥舖才買得到的滷包香料,如今已經商品化,大量在超市、雜貨店流通。

肉桂樹的枝幹可剝皮,乾燥製成桂皮;剩餘的枝葉則可萃取煉製肉桂精油,是經濟價值很高的樹種。(鄭元春攝)

p.56

色香味俱全的滷味,不但物美價廉,而且樣式豐富,是夜市攤上極受歡迎的零嘴小吃。

p.58

台北圓山大飯店川揚菜副主廚高進益製作的拿手菜「大紮肉」,特意降低五香料的比例,而多用新鮮的蔥薑蒜和辣椒,讓肉品儘量保持原味和清香。

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How Many Spices Make Five?

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

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1.Fennel seeds

2.Caoguo

3.Cinnamon

4.Cloves

5.Chenpi

6.Liquorice

7.Sichuan peppercorns

8.Chuanxiong

9.Star anise

Source: Hui Chieh Chuang Co.

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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.

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