Focus Ingredient: Star Anise
Star Anise History and Uses
Star Anise is one of my absolute favorite spices. It comes from the seed pod of a native Chinese evergreen tree (Illicium Verum), and is now grown all over Southeast Asia. As with most indigenous spices along the equator, it has antimicrobial and antibiotic properties.
It has absolutely no relation to the anise plant, which comes from a flowering plant very similar to fennel, however, both have the familiar licorice flavor also found in fennel and tarragon, due to a common chemical compound in all four. It is used extensively in Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian cuisine. It is one of the primary spices in Chinese Five Spice Powder and in the Vietnamese beef noodle soup, pho.
Star Anise in Desserts
There is a much more present sweetness in Star Anise than what is found in any of its similar flavor pals. Stick a piece in your mouth and you’ll almost think you’re chewing on a nice piece of black licorice candy. As such, it is a great addition to desserts. I like to reduce fruit juices, brandy, and/or simple syrups with Star Anise and other aromatic spices (like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, etc.), which I then pour over cakes, cooked fruits, or cheese. It is also fantastic in mulled cider, and pairs well with anything citrus.
Star Anise in Savory Dishes
But that sweet pungency goes extremely well with savory meat dishes as well. Star anise is amazing in marinades for chicken or beef, added while braising the same, added to Indian curries, or ground and sprinkled on chicken wings (as found all over Malaysia). Sometimes I like to toss a few stars in the wok with my ginger, chillies, and garlic when stir frying beef. It’s even great cooked in with beans and brown sugar.
Star Anise Substitutions
You can substitute Star Anise with/for fennel seed, anise seed, or dried tarragon in most recipes which call for a ground version. Give Star Anise a try; you’ll be glad you did. It is easily sourced at any Asian market, and is typically very inexpensive. It will likely come in bags bigger than you need, so consider a few other terrific uses:
- Steeped in boiling water with herbs/spices to make an herbal tea
- Ground and sprinkled on hot chocolate or coffee
- Burned for incense