Figuring out what Chinese five spice tastes like

Another week, another new dinner recipe. Growing up on mainly Italian and pub food, I’ve been on a bit of an Asian kick lately, trying ingredients I had never bought before. I kept that trend going this week with Creme de la Crumb’s Korean BBQ Chicken, which introduced a new spice to my pantry: Chinese five spice.

I can’t pretend that I knew this before picking up the jar, but for other uninformed readers like myself, the five titular spices are star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds.

On paper, that’s a wild flavor combination to me! Chinese cinnamon is, apparently, a stronger, hotter version of the cinnamon I traditionally use in my french toast and snickerdoodles. Adding Szechuan peppercorns and fennel seeds to that sounds like an interesting savory kick to a meal. But then adding cloves, which I associate with my annual autumn pumpkin bread, and star anise, which I’ve never actually eaten but associate with licorice, is wild.

Skewered chicken seasoned with salt, pepper, and Chinese five spice, ready for the oven.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t know what the five spices were before I bought this or I would’ve been intimidated by this combo.

If there’s one bit of advice I can offer to picky eaters, it’s to dip your toes into trying new foods by pairing them with something familiar. Not only is it a good fail-safe since you know that you’ll at least enjoy something on your plate, but it also provides you with some frame of reference for what you’re about to eat.

Because I had no frame of reference for what this spice would taste like, but I did know that I love chicken and BBQ sauce.

Which brings me to the BBQ sauce. Creme de la Crumb’s original recipe calls for Sriracha, but given my newly acquired jar of gochujang thanks to last week’s venture into brothy ramen, I made a swap for the Korean chili paste.

The verdict

I’ll be honest. I didn’t love the smell of the Chinese five spice. But I blame the cloves for that because cloves smell pretty terrible and yet I bake with them anyway. I can move past the smell.

The BBQ sauce featured soy sauce, rice vinegar, and toasted sesame oil in addition to the extra gochujang that I added. It was equal parts sweet and savory and just a little spicy. The brown sugar in the sauce also created a great glaze on the chicken as it cooked.

Serving with Rice-A-Roni and garlicky green beans is also not a bad idea.

Given the strong flavors of the sauce, the Chinese five spice was definitely not a dominant flavor in the meal, but I could pick up on the cinnamon-y scent that it brought to the chicken. The gochujang, however, did make its presence known, in the best way possible. It made for a new kind of BBQ sauce for me, and one that I’d definitely make again.

Next time I make this recipe, I’d probably leave the chicken breasts or thighs whole rather than skewering them and grill them rather than bake. Getting a bit of char on the BBQ glaze sounds like it would take this to the next level.

All in all, my first Chinese five spice endeavor was a success, and I’m ready to dig deeper into what it has to offer. I’ve long chronicled my inability to make both well-cooked and flavorful rice. I can achieve one or the other, but rarely both. I’m curious if adding a little Chinese five spice could do me a favor and kick the flavor up a notch.

I wonder how it would pair in a dessert too since it does have cloves and Chinese cinnamon in it. Who has Chinese five spice ideas? I’m all ears! Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @thepickyeaterchronicles. And what other foods do I need to try?

Published by Bethy St. John

Lifelong picky eater with a love for all things cooking. I'm a complicated woman.

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