Five Spice Braised Pork Belly: part I

Fivespice

Braised dishes are perfect for these windy, rainy days we’ve had recently around here. It’s perhaps a nod to my Asian heritage that my favorite way to braise is not with wine or rich stock, but simply with water and Five Spice powder. Western cooks turn their proverbial nose at braising with water, as my friend Daniel Patterson pointed out in his recent article in the New York Times, but Asian cooks have been braising with water for generations.

The key, besides long braising time, is to make sure that the protein you use has enough fat and gelatin in the connective tissues to lend an unctuous quality to the resulting braising liquid. My protein of choice is pork belly, especially if I can find one with skin and rib bones still attached. When I use leaner protein such as chicken, I always throw in the neck and feet into the braising liquid as well. They are entirely edible, but even if you don’t plan on gnawing at them, they provide the extra oomph you can taste in the sauce.

Browning the meat is less important, despite what Daniel told you in that article, and might even produce a less than perfect outcome. Pork skin, for example, can discolor and might even break when subjected directly to dry heat on the pan. There’s nothing much wrong with that, but I love the unbroken skin which, when bitten into, resists ever so slightly before letting you into that meltingly delicious fatty layer just underneath.

One thing I highly suggest you do is make your own Five Spice
powder. It’s so easy to do, and the result will be vastly superior to
most commercial brands available in the west, which I find too
overwhelmed with anise. Should I want a purely anise-flavor braise I
wouldn’t bother with Five Spice in the first place. I also find that
most spice blends use the cheaper and more easily available black
peppercorns instead of the proper Sichuan peppercorns. And if you know
anything about anything at all you’d know that those two "peppercorns"
share very little besides the misleading name. Sichuan "peppercorns"
are not even peppercorns, but dried outer pods of prickly ash fruits.
They have an acidic note and gives a tingling sensation on the palate -
both entirely absent in the ubiquitous black peppers.

There are so many "recipes" for five spice blends on the internet, most of which concentrate on five kinds of spice: star anise, sichuan peppercorns, cassia (a type of Asian cinnamon, you can substitute regular cinnamon), and fennel. It seems that people take the "five" in "Five Spice" to mean a blend of five different spices. This is not entirely correct. The "five" in Five Spice actually refers to the balance of five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air, and metal. The Five Spice powder was originally used in Chinese medicine to restore the balance of the five elements in the Chi or the life energy in our bodies. So, besides the five basic spices, Five Spice powder may contain other spices such as coriandar seeds, cumin or anise seeds (instead of fennel seeds), black or green cardamom, and even nutmeg.

In my own Five Spice blend, I started out with equal amount, by weight, of the five basic spices, though recently I’ve been using cumin seeds instead fennel seeds. I found that the mix of star anise, cassia and fennel seeds, all providing strong anise-y notes, became a little overpowering, so I opted for cumin seeds, which are very similar to fennel seeds but a little less anise-y and a bit more earthy. I also cut down the amount of clove by half and added coriandar seeds and (sometimes) black cardamom to my blend, following the advice of a spice maker I knew in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

I recommend starting with whole spices if you can find them – ground spices lose their potency quickly, and you never know how old they’ve been loitering on the shelf. Starting with whole spices also allow you to dry roast them for a bit before grinding, which helps turn certain compounds in the spices more volatile, so your Five Spice blend ends up more fragrant and flavorful. You can easily double or quadruple the recipe to share with friends or keep for future use. Kept well in an airtight jar, your spice blend should last a few months in good shape.

I have a small coffee grinder I use for grinding spices. it’s just an inexpensive Kitchenaid blade coffee grinder you can get on amazon for not very much money. (Braun makes one even cheaper, if a bit smaller, though I prefer mine.) I grind my own chile blends and spice blends, so it’s a very good investment for me. It doesn’t take up much room in my crowded cabinet either. If you don’t have a spice grinder, just use a heavy mortar and pestle – it’s a bit more elbow grease but you can do it!

Five Spice Powder

30g (1oz) star anise
30g (1oz) cassia (or cinnamon)
30g (1oz or 5 tbsp) sichuan peppercorn
30g (1oz) cumin seeds
15g (0.5oz) clove
7g (0.25oz) coriandar seeds
black cardamom (to taste, optional)

On a dry pan over medium heat, roast each spice separately until just fragrant. They roast at different time so the easiest and safest thing to do is use a small pan and roast each one separately. Let the spices come back close to room temperature before grinding.

Depending on the size of your grinder, you might need to grind the spices in batches. In this case, it helps to grind each one separately as well. Blend all the ground spices together well in a large bowl before transferring to spice jars.

(click here to go to Part II)

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  • http://mydeliciousadventures.blogspot.com/ Vanilla

    Funny!
    I just posted a very similar recipe using five spice just yesterday!
    Looking forward to reading part II!

  • http://charcuterista.wordpress.com Charcuterista

    Mmm…I’ve never tried braised pork belly and, as much as I love pork belly, would love to! Can’t wait for the second installment since I’ve recently realized I can order pork belly from my local butcher…

  • http://www.rasamalaysia.com Rasa Malaysia

    Salute…I have never made any dried spice powder from scratch. There is a brand in Penang which is a legacy…the shop has been there for 65 years or so. But I hardly ever use 5-spice powder to cook, unless I make Nyonya Loh Bak (pork rolls wrapped with bean curd skin).

  • http://www.practicallydone.com helen

    My mother makes a mean braised pork belly, with really just a handful of simple ingredients and water.
    I’m going to add this to my repertoire. I’ve been making pad thai following your recipe for a year now, and I always appreciate the amount of details/explanations you offer.

  • http://canelaycomino.blogspot.com Gretchen Noelle

    This is very helpful info!

  • http://www.erincooks.com Erin

    I’ve been watching “tivo’ed” Jamie Oliver episodes and he uses this spice pretty liberally. Unfortunately I had no idea what it was composed off. I’m sure it’s easily found on the shelf at Whole Foods, but thank you for breaking it down in case we want to make it on our own.

  • Matilda

    Thanks for breaking down the 5 spice mix! Also, I’m glad you recommended a grinder: I’ve broken at least 2 coffee grinders while making spice mixes because (this is only a theory) a little water would seep into the motor via the place where the blades are attached. Does the KitchenAid one have a removable canister for cleaning separately?

  • http://kitchen-notebook.blogspot.com/ Lucy Vanel

    Thank you for this recipe, Pim. I have recently replenished the spice drawer and have all on hand. I look forward to following along.

  • http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com veron

    but where’s the pork belly!?! I tried Justin Quek’s recipe a while back with braised pork belly. It also had five-spice – which is a typical spice for pork dishes.
    http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/08/a-cross-cultura.html

  • http://toomanycookbooksofe.blogspot.com/ ErikaK

    I have had good success braising with water when I did not have acceptable stock ready. I may have to try making my own 5 spice since I have most of those ingredients (except for the black cardamom), but I find that Penzey’s is very good.
    I love your blog!

  • http://www.oakmonster.com oakley

    Just the thought of the pork and spices is a total flu remedy. This is bringing me back from that the”I can’t taste anything/OMG I might be throwing up” purgatory.
    …Hmmm….pork belly…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/agatilao/ Arnold

    I wish I read this yesterday. I’m working on some sous vide pork belly (it’s in the water bath now) and would have loved to use your five spice recipe on one of the pieces. I’ll definitely keep it in mind for next time.

  • http://marcsala.blogspot.com/ Marc

    For reasons beyond my understanding, the stuff sold in jars labeled “cinnamon” in most grocery stores in the U.S. is actually cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum). There is probably a good story behind that designation.
    Although not relevant to the recipe above, the “true” cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, also known as Ceylon cinnamon) is a bit harder to find. Mexican grocery stores are one place to look (often labeled canela) and specialty shops should have it too.

  • http://www.breakawaycook.com Eric Gower

    Love the photo. It’s my first time here, so hi Pim!
    I think my fridge has three different braises in tupperware, all waiting for toasted bread and a simple chutney for lunches. I too make my own five-spice, can’t imagine buying it, it takes less than two minutes to whir up in the coffee grinder.
    Can’t wait to delve further here.

  • jean parquette

    So i went to the co-op and bought the spices and came home and roasted them and ground them up. absolutely wonderful! i happen to have a couple of packages of pork belly from my half o’pig i recently bought, so i’m set to go as soon as you post part II…

  • http://www.thelivingkitchen.wordpress.com elarael

    Thank you for going into detail on the meaning of 5 Spice, I love learning things like that, and for sharing the both your cumin sub and the Bangkok chinatown spice secret! Those are generous, juicey tidbits, for sure, haha!

  • PM

    i love making five spice pork belly, and i have a little trick… i add a big tablespoon of Pastis (a french aperitif of anis extracts)towards the end of the cooking process. to bring up this teensy more spice to the five-spice!

  • http://kelleymensa.blogspot.com Lisa

    I have pork belly in the freezer so I am waiting for the rest of this post!

  • http://whiteonricecouple.com white on rice couple

    Hooray! We totally agree with you and are planning to talk about this too in continuation of our last “curry powder” spices post. Love your additions of some of the “C” spices. My ancestors simple method of braising with water go way back, but many “cooks” frown on that method. Thanks for bringing that issue up as well. Look forward to your part II.

  • http://www.sassyradish.com radish

    Russians braise with water too! I have done most of my braising with water as it lends itself for very delicate but delicious flavors. I will have to try this.

  • http://chezpim.com Pim

    Thanks everyone.
    Arnold,
    David used this spice to make a pork marinade and then cook the pork sous vide at the restaurant. You’re on to something here.
    Jean and Lisa,
    I’m sorry it took a whle for me to post part II. I hope it wasn’t too late for your pig.
    PM,
    Pastis is very anise-y so I can see how it would work very well. I might steal your trick next time.
    Radish,
    I imagine Russian is similar to Chinese cookery in that they both are based largely on peasant cooking, hence the water braise. I’ve never cooked anything Russian, I’m going to have to get a recipe or two off your blog soon and try some.
    cheers,
    Pim

  • MichaelnTheKitchen

    Hi, Pim…my first visit, and I can actually add something, at least for Matilda from Feb. 25th.; Matilda, your ‘water’ leak is actually a broken down ‘permanent’ lubrication in a blender-style ‘grinder’. The machine you describe is perfect for…frozen drinks (since I can spell neither mageurita nor daiquerui), but unsuitable for grinding spices. What you need is a ‘mill’ through which your product passes only once, usually downwards. Your current blender-style ‘grinder’ will only serve to break your heart as it partially pulverizes product. Hope this helps, mitk

  • calle

    the recipe is more then 5-spices u donut! :)

  • http://www.cupcakeproject.com Stef

    I wish I had read this before using five spice in 3 recipes. Glad I read it now. It’s really informative. I talked about this post in my post on five spice frosting: http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2008/07/five-spice-powder-frosting-recipe.html .
    Next time, I’ll try making my own five spice like you suggest.

  • Frank The Baker

    I tried this recipe and it *rocked*! I was also so glad to be introduced to sichuan peppercorns (an entirely new spice to me)! Thanks for the write-up. It’s really worth the effort to toast and grind one’s own spices (as a lot of Indian cooking has shown me).
    One caveat, however, and I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned it– grinding cloves is REALLY destructive to any hard plastics in any grinding or storage unit! I totally hosed an otherwise nifty little spice grinder sometime back because ground cloves contain an oil that seems to “melt” most hard plastics!
    I buy my cloves pre-ground and have been looking for an old hand-cranked coffee grind (with adjustable burrs)– just wood and steel– exclusively for cloves to get around this.
    Again, thanks for the recipe.

  • http://www.fusiononthefly.com Karl Wilder

    I love braised pork belly. I rub with 5 spice and dry fry then add the aromatics to the syrup in the wok throw in some water and soy sauce, top with a lid and come back 45 minutes later.
    It is one of the best dishes I make.

  • http://www.tiffanyfree.com/tiffany-pendants.html Tiffany Pendant

    You’re welcome all. I just adore him. Too bad Stockholm is a bit too far to drop by for dinner!

  • Stalkin

    Thanks! I make a red cooked pork from How to Cook and Eat in CHinese, and this is a nice update to my process.