How Spices Influence our Food

Spices are so very important in food preparation. This is inevitably what allows each type of cuisines to differentiate itself, and create its own distinctive flavor. Throughout history, we have seen how the huge demand for spices created historical trade routes across continents and seas. Christopher Columbus bumbled and miscalculated his voyage across the Atlantic in search of the Spice Route; which in fact was a completely different direction. He found himself in the West Indies and “discovered” the beauty and delicacies of this region for the glory of Spain and the detriment of the aboriginal people of the Caribbean. The Allspice, Annatto, cassava, and guavas are foods and spices which are native to the Caribbean. I digress, but can you imagine a cuisine devoid of the rich diversity which spices add to our food today? I’d rather not!

My Asian heritage has enriched my palate and influenced my choice of seasonings tremendously. I have a section in my pantry devoted to storing my Asian dried ingredients, such as shiitake mushrooms, lily buds, tofu sticks, and clear rice noodles, which are distinctly Chinese. Some of my favorite sauces to always have on hand are Japanese and Thai Soy sauce, Spicy Indonesian Ketjap Manis, dark Mushroom soy, Hoisin and Oyster sauce.Black bean paste, sesame oil, and chile paste are also key ingredients in an Asian pantry. And then there is a myriad of dried spices.

As a child, I distinctly remember that I did not like the taste of Star Anise. I distanced myself from this wonderful spice for a while, as I was still tethered by my childhood bias against the aroma. Some time ago, I rediscovered the awesome flavor of the star anise. It has a distinct spicy, sweet essence, similar to licorice. It is used in Chinese Five-Spice powder which is a combination of Star Anise, Szechuan Peppercorn, Cinnamon, Fennel, and Cloves. It is an amazing melange of spices for certain dishes and it amps the flavor profile up a notch. It is used in Asian and Arabic cuisines.

My dish today is a fusion of flavors which represent me. There are several ingredients, but they all come together well in the seasoning and sauce. I hope you enjoy this recipe.

Hoisin Garlic Five-Spice Chicken

Serves 4


2 lbs chicken thighs, deboned

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 onion, sliced

1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 tbsp brandy or rum

1 chicken cube

1/2 tsp Chinese 5 spice powder

2 tbsp hoisin sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

1 cup of mushrooms, sliced

1 tsp chopped parsley



Season chicken thighs with a marinade made of garlic, ginger, soy, sesame oil, chicken bouillon cube,  5 spice powder, brandy, and 1 tbsp hoisin sauce. Leave to marinate for 15-20 minutes.

In a large saute pan, on medium to high, heat oil and add sugar to caramelize. When light golden-colored, add the chicken pieces and allow the caramel to coat the chicken pieces well. Cook each side for about 5-7 minutes or until each side is brown.

Add the onions and the mushrooms and saute with the chicken pieces. Add 1/2 cup water and the remaining hoisin sauce to the chicken and allow to simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes. Make sure that the chicken thighs have cooked through completely and are not pink in the thickest part. Taste for salt and pepper. The sauce should be reduced by this time. Add chopped parsley and remove from heat.

Serve with Jasmine rice and your favorite vegetables.

Note: chicken breast may be used instead of chicken thighs. I prefer the dark meat for this dish as it is juicier and more flavorful. Deboning the thigh allows the chicken to cook faster than leaving the bone in.

Substitute for 5 spice powder: a mixture of 1 tsp each of cinnamon, pink/ white peppercorns, toasted fennel seeds, ground cloves and star anise in powder. You can store the remainder for future use.

Substitute for hoisin sauce: a mixture of 1/4 cup teriyaki sauce, 2 tbsp honey, 1 tsp white vinegar and 1 tsp sesame oil.





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