Is star anise just a pretty face – or a useful cooking ingredient as well?
“I was born in the former Yugoslavia, in the days when people were not allowed to celebrate religious holidays and, therefore, created their own. Until I was a teenager, I didn’t even know the exact date of Christmas. Our big day was New Year’s Eve, with white-bearded Grandfather Frost instead of Santa Claus.
Today the magical fragrance of spice transports me back to my childhood. Cinnamon, cloves, and star anise recall the table with my family and friends, the big Christmas (or New Year) tree and presents all around.”
Ana Ros, chef-patron at Hiša Franko in Slovenia, in The Financial Times
Star anise (aka Ilicium verum) is a spice, used widely in Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malay cooking, which has a star-shaped seed pod – usually with eight points. Those with more points (as many as 12) are considered as lucky in the East as a four-leaved clover is in Ireland. Widely grown in warm climates (it makes a good, fragrant hedge apparently – a type of evergreen magnolia), the immature still-green fruit is harvested and then dried.
How is star anise used?
It’s one of the five ingredients of Chinese Five Spice (along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds and Sichuan pepper) commonly used with chicken, duck and pork. It’s an essential ingredient in the Vietnamese beef soup, pho.
In India it’s used in biryani and in masala chai.
In fact, star anise contains high levels of anethole, which makes it very sweet, so in the West it’s often added to fruit compotes, or spiced apricots, plums or apples. It’s not, however, to be confused with anise (Pimpinella anisum) which also contains a good deal of anethole, but which is, botanically speaking, from a completely different plant family.
It pairs (just as liquorice does) particularly well with tomatoes.
It’s also used to make alcoholic drinks – particularly those normally associated with anise – absinthe, pastis etc, also sambuca and Galliano. Increasingly also it’s added to cocktails (as much for aesthetic reasons as for flavour). The French use it in their version of mulled wine, vin chaud.
What does star anise taste of?
It has a similar taste to aniseed and liquorice and also flavours of both cloves and cinnamon.
Most of the taste is in the pod, although the seeds also have some flavour, but it’s inedible whole – use it to infuse stews, gravies, syrups and cocktails, but then remove, or make it clear it’s just for decoration. However if ground it’s perfectly edible. Use sparingly – it’s got a very strong taste (a couple are sufficient for an entire stew).
Keep it in an airtight container, in a dark place, for up to a year (whole star anise will keep for much longer).
Star anise is said to have many, often unproven, health benefits. It is, however, used to great effect in the manufacture of Tamiflu – 90% of the world star anise crop goes into the making of this anti-flu medicine.