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Cooking Note: Five (or thirteen) spice powder and ‘spice water’

Chinese five spices powder
Chinese spiced water

Chinese five spice powder

I have to say the first time I saw five spice powder in a supermarket here, I was very, very surprised, couldn’t believe my eyes — it is a ‘too typical’ and ‘traditional’ thing in Chinese cooking. ‘Five spices’ powder is made with anise star, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves, and fennel seeds.

It goes very well with meat soups and certain stir fried vegetable dishes. It provides a nice fragrance to dishes and a subtle touch to their taste.

Thirteen spice powder

In China, there is another similar powder called ‘ thirteen spice powder’. Apart from the basic five spices, it has another eight more, including sun dried tangerine skin, ground ginger, cardamomum, etc, I couldn’t name them all in English, but it is said that some of them can act as Chinese medicinal herbs.

This way of mixing the spices was adopted in Chinese cuisine more that 2000 years ago.There is a legend saying that there was once a man who sold ‘ thirteen spice powder’. He was blind and he placed thirteen spices in front him in different bags. When people came to buy, he would put them together according a certain proportion, while singing a song he made up.

It is best to be used, for example, with boiling beef or stir frying when you think the taste of the ingredients need to have more flavor. But, it is not good to put in all Chinese stir fry dishes, as its strong taste might mask the original taste of the ingredients.

My mum has her own way of using these spices, which she learned from my grandma. :) and I learned from her.

It is to put a small handful sichuan pepper, couple of cinnamon sticks and a few anise stars in a small bottle, and fill in with water. After, at least a few hours, when the spices sank to the bottom of the bottle, and fragrance goes into the water, it can then be used for cooking the dishes.

The bottle can be refilled, and kept in the fridge. Probably around a week time after soaking the spices, the fragrance is fading, then you can bin it, and prepare another one.

The taste of the spices is lighter than the powder, but it is easy to mix into the dishes, and can be used in most Chinese stir fried dishes.

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