Famous five Five-spice powder (or, more poetically, "five-fragrance powder") is an ingredient you'll see a lot in Chinese recipes. It's used in braised dishes and stir-fries, and as a coating (after being mixed with starch) for fried ingredients. When mixed with salt, it can be sprinkled over food at the last minute, to finish a dish.
Sometimes, though, the mixture is made of six spices. As well as star anise, cassia, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and fennel seeds, it can also contain small amounts of ground ginger, cardamom or nutmeg. If you have a good spice grinder (or a burr-type coffee grinder), it's fairly easy to customise the mixture by making your own - the only spice not easy to grind to a powder is dried ginger. As with other ground spices, the flavours fade quite quickly, so store it in a small glass jar in the freezer.
The basic five-spice mixture - usually comprised of whole, not ground spices - is often used in lo shui (master sauce) dishes. Combine light and regular soy sauce with rock sugar, water, star anise, cassia, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and fennel seeds, then mix in black cardamom pods, a chunk of fresh ginger and a strip of chun pei (dried tangerine peel). Bring to the boil then add the meat (such as a whole chicken, pork belly or stewing beef, with some tendon), lower the heat and simmer until the meat is cooked. After you serve the meat, strain the cooking liquid to remove all the solids. The liquid can be refrigerated and used over and over again (each time adding more of the same ingredients in the same proportions) to cook other meats; it gets better the more it's used.