It's all about harmony and yin-yang. And while that sounds tritely New Age, it really is the key to Chinese cuisine.
Because as with so much of Asian cooking, the blend of seasonings known as five-spice powder is intended to trigger a sense of balance in the mouth and nose. How? A careful selection of spices that simultaneously hit notes of warm and cool, sweet and bitter, savory and searing.
And that's what you get with five-spice powder, a mix of fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. Like spice blends around the world, the proportions of those ingredients vary by region in China, but some variant of it is used throughout the country.
That robust profile of flavors makes it a natural for roasted and grilled meats. In fact, some argue five-spice powder was the original dry barbecue rub. Five-spice especially likes fatty meat, and often is used with duck (and is combined with soy sauce to give Peking duck it characteristic flavor and color).
Likewise, the sweet-and-spicy notes play well with pork (fried, braised and otherwise), and even is sprinkled on fried peanuts as a snack. But that diversity of flavor also makes this a versatile seasoning. It is equally at home on roasted vegetables and tofu dishes.
So what should you do with it?
n Um, best steak rub ever? Rub it on steak tips, then refrigerate them for a day or so. Toss them on the grill and pair with beer.
n Blend it with kosher salt, then sprinkle it on hot buttered popcorn. Even better — use ghee instead of butter.
n Substitute it for the seasonings in your favorite meat-based chili.
n Blend five-spice powder with salt, then rub the mixture both under and over the skin of a whole chicken for roasting.
n Speaking of chicken, mix five-spice powder into the batter of fried (or even baked "fried") chicken.
n Blend five-spice powder with olive oil, then toss shrimp in it for grilling.