Chinese five-spice powder is a popular blend of spices used to add complex, warm flavors to various dishes, especially Chinese cuisine. With notes of star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns, this versatile seasoning can spice up everything from stir-fries to marinades.
However, you may sometimes find yourself without this aromatic blend on hand. In that case, it's good to know of some handy substitutes to recreate the taste. There are various options to consider, from single spices to pre-made blends.
What is Chinese Five-Spice Powder?
Chinese five-spice powder, also called Chinese five spice, is a blend of five spices that imparts a complex mix of flavors. It's commonly used in various branches of Chinese cuisine.
The five components include:
- Star anise - Provides a pronounced licorice-like sweetness.
- Sichuan peppercorns - Known for their unique mouth-numbing flavor and slight spiciness.
- Clove - Imparts a sweet, strong and slightly astringent taste.
- Fennel seeds - Feature an anise-like sweetness.
- Cinnamon - Most recipes call for Chinese cinnamon which is bolder than regular cinnamon. It has a sweet woodsy flavor with subtle spiciness.
This combination creates an overall taste that is sweet, aromatic, slightly spicy and bitter. The blend beautifully seasons various proteins and vegetable dishes. It's commonly used as a rub for meats, added to stir-fries or as part of dipping sauces. The spices are toasted to intensify flavor before being ground into a fine powder.
While Chinese five-spice powder has a distinct flavor profile, there are some handy alternatives to use in a pinch.
Best Substitutes for Chinese Five-Spice Powder
If you don't have five-spice powder on hand, try one of these easy substitutions to replicate the taste.
1. Make Your Own Chinese Five-Spice Blend
Making your own Chinese five-spice powder is the best way to mimic the exact flavor. With whole spices and a blender or mortar and pestle, you can freshly prepare the seasoned blend at home.
To make it, combine and grind the following:
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 star anise pod
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick or 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Start by dry roasting the whole spices briefly in a skillet to intensify their flavors. Then grind them to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or small blender.
Store the homemade blend in an airtight container. Use within a few months for the best potency.
Key Takeaway: Making your own Chinese five-spice powder with whole spices will provide the closest match to the authentic blend.
2. Garam Masala
It has a warm, robust aroma and flavor. The taste differs somewhat from Chinese five-spice, with more potency and spice. But it can provide a similar enough flavor profile when used judiciously.
When swapping garam masala for Chinese five-spice powder, use about half the specified amount of five-spice first. You can adjust to taste if needed. Garam masala pairs especially well in curries, stews and other Indian-inspired dishes.
3. Cinnamon and Star Anise
Cinnamon and star anise together make one of the easiest pantry substitutes, using spices you likely already have on hand.
Cinnamon delivers the warm, sweet woodsy notes that dominate five-spice powder. Pair it with star anise for its pronounce licorice-like aroma and taste. Add a pinch of cloves or black peppercorns too for extra complexity if you have them.
Combine the ground spices in equal proportions to substitute for Chinese five-spice powder. You can also add whole cinnamon sticks and star anise pods to soups, stews and braises, removing them later before serving.
Key Takeaway: Cinnamon and star anise combined emulate two of the main flavors in Chinese five-spice powder.
On its own, the warm allspice makes a surprisingly good stand-in for Chinese five-spice powder. That's because allspice subtly tastes like a blend of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and black peppercorns.
Allspice is easy to find and works well in both sweet and savory dishes flavored with five-spice powder.
5. Pumpkin Pie Spice
Pumpkin pie spice is a handy blend to have in your cupboard during the fall baking season. But it can also substitute for Chinese five-spice powder in a pinch, since their flavor profiles overlap.
Pumpkin pie spice contains cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. It lacks the anise flavor from star anise and spiciness of Szechuan peppercorns. But it can provide enough warming sweetness and spice to work in some recipes.
Use pumpkin pie spice in a 1:1 ratio when standing in for Chinese five-spice powder. The blend pairs especially well with fall ingredients like squash, pumpkin, apples and pears.
6. Ras el Hanout
Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend with a complex flavor profile. It typically contains over a dozen ingredients! These often include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, aniseed, peppercorn, coriander and more.
The end result is a mix of sweet, savory and spicy flavors. There are many variations, but ras el hanout makes a good substitute for Chinese five-spice powder when enhanced with extra star anise.
Use it in a 1:1 ratio, adding 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise per teaspoon of ras el hanout. The blend shines when seasoning fish, rice or couscous dishes.
On its own, baharat makes a decent substitute for Chinese five-spice powder thanks to the overlapping presence of cloves and cinnamon. But adding a pinch of fennel seed or star anise can provide even closer results.
Baharat pairs well with lamb, chicken, rice and vegetable dishes. Use it in equal amounts to the Chinese five-spice powder specified.
8. Fennel and Sichuan Peppercorn
In a last-minute pinch, combine fennel seeds with Sichuan peppercorns to loosely approximate the licorice notes of star anise and spike of Sichuan pepper present in Chinese five-spice powder.
Use a ratio of about 3 parts fennel seed to 1 part Sichuan peppercorn. Black pepper can substitute for Sichuan peppercorn too. This will mainly provide the aroma and mild sweetness, without the complexity of the full blend.
Tips for Using Chinese Five-Spice Substitutes
When substituting for Chinese five-spice powder in recipes, keep these tips in mind:
- Start with less seasoning than specified for Chinese five-spice powder. The alternatives often have bolder potency. Gradually add more to taste.
- Toast whole spice substitutes briefly before use to intensify their flavors.
- Blend spices to a fine powder for even distribution and optimal flavor release.
- Adjust the blend ingredients to your tastes. For example, if you find star anise too overpowering, use less in your homemade five-spice blend.
- Consider the cuisine and dish when choosing a substitute. Garam masala fits Indian food, while allspice suits baked goods.
- Store spice blends in airtight containers away from light and heat to preserve freshness.
How is Chinese Five-Spice Powder Used?
This aromatic blend seasons a wide variety of Chinese dishes. Here are some of the most popular uses:
- Stir-fries - Five-spice powder beautifully flavors vegetable and protein stir-fries. Toss with onions, bell peppers, chicken, shrimp, beef or tofu.
- Noodles - Add to noodle dishes like chow mein, lo mein or pad thai.
- Rice - Sprinkle on fried rice or infuse into congee porridge.
- Marinades and Rubs - Combining with soy sauce, hoisin, oil and other seasonings makes a perfect meat or seafood marinade. Also excellent as a dry rub on grilled or roasted meat and poultry.
- Soups and Stews - Add depth and complexity to brothy dishes.
- Roasting - Turn up veggies like cauliflower or Brussels sprouts by tossing with oil and Chinese five-spice powder before roasting.
- Baked goods - Provides warmth and intrigue to sweets like cookies, pastries and breads.
A small amount of this highly flavored blend goes a long way in any dish!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use garam masala instead of Chinese five spice?
Yes, garam masala makes a very good substitute for Chinese five spice powder. Since garam masala contains many of the same spices like cinnamon, cumin, fennel, cloves and black pepper, it can provide a similar warming and complex flavor.
Use about half the amount of garam masala specified for Chinese five spice, then adjust to taste. Garam masala works especially well in curries, stews and other Indian dishes. Add a bit of star anise too for even closer results.
Is there a premixed substitute for Chinese five spice powder?
Pumpkin pie spice is one pre-mixed blend you likely have on hand that can stand in for Chinese five spice thanks to its cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice.
You can also easily make your own using whole star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Briefly toast the spices then grind them into a powder.
While premixed blends like garam masala and ras el hanout don't have the exact same flavor, they can provide a similar warming and aromatically spiced taste.
Can I use cinnamon only instead of Chinese five spice?
Ground cinnamon makes a decent single-spice stand-in for Chinese five spice powder in a pinch thanks to its sweet and spicy warmth. While it won't have the exact complex flavor, cinnamon can provide enough seasoning to complement stir-fries, marinades, rice dishes and more.
Use an equal amount of cinnamon as specified for Chinese five spice. For best results, stick to Chinese cassia cinnamon if possible for its bolder, spicier taste compared to regular cinnamon.
What's the best Chinese five spice substitute for pork or chicken?
For pork or chicken, homemade Chinese five spice powder is always best to get the authentic flavor. But garam masala also complements the meat nicely.
And seasoning with cinnamon and star anise provides enough sweetness and warmth to work well in pork and chicken dishes. Allspice can also substitute in a straightforward way.
Chinese five-spice powder is a unique seasoning blend that adds inviting aroma and complex flavor to many Asian dishes. With star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel, clove and cinnamon, it provides the right balance of spicy, sweet and savory.
While tough to replicate exactly, alternatives like garam masala, cinnamon and star anise can provide similar warmth and spice. Consider the dish you're making when selecting a substitute. Start with small amounts and adjust the proportions as needed.
Making your own Chinese five spice blend at home with whole spices is the best way to recreate the authentic flavor. But in a pinch, spices like allspice, pumpkin pie spice and fennel seed can work in a simple blend too.