Star anise (Illicium verum), with its sensual curves, firm body and alluring scent, wins the spice beauty pageant! And it’s beauty is more than skin deep.
The perfect 8-pointed star with slender pods, each pod cradling a seed, is the sun-dried fruit of native Chinese evergreens. Its most noticeable characteristic is it’s licorice aroma – much stronger, sweeter and denser than the more common Spanish anise seeds. This licorice taste comes from anethol, just one of this spice’s compounds that have been shown to possess healing powers for a wide range of maladies, such as fighting infections, relieving arthritis, colic, cough, indigestion and more.
Buying and Storage
Buy whole, broken pieces or ground. Intact stars are more for aesthetics than a matter of taste or freshness; broken pieces most likely indicate aggressive handling during shipping or packaging. A whole star should have no more than 8 points (carpals). You don’t want to confuse it with Japanese star anise which has more points and is poisonous – AND is not sold on the open market! The Japanese version also smells like turpentine or denatured alcohol, not licorice, so it’s quite easy to distinguish.
Best test for freshness: you should be able to detect its aroma immediately. No aroma means it’s past it’s time. Whole star anise has a long storage life: 5 years if kept in a glass jar with airtight lid in a cool, dark place. Ground keeps for less than a year, if stored in the same conditions.
Infection Fighter: For thousands of years, star anise has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to fight flu by clearing mucous from the respiratory tract. Today, science has confirmed this capability. In fact, shikimic acid, one of the compounds in the spice, is a key component of Tamiflu, the most commonly prescribed drug for treating flu.
Studies have shown that the spice is effective in viral, bacterial or fungal infections and inflammation, including septic shock, an often fatal, system-wide infection; herpes simplex 1, reducing cold sores; eliminating 99% of streptococcus mutans, the bacteria found in cavities.
Coughs: Star anise enjoys a considerable reputation as medicine in coughs and chest infections. A common ingredient in medicinal teas, cough medicines and lozenges, it’s especially effective in hard, dry coughs and whooping coughs.
Anti-Cancer: Various compounds found in star anise kill cancer cells and, in lab research, reduce damage to brain cells.
Rheumatism and Arthritis: The spice helps reduce painful inflammation. The Chinese prescribe a star anise tea to bring relief.
Digestive Aid: In Chinese medicine the seeds are chewed before meals to spark appetite or after to relieve gas and bloating. The spice is also used to combat colic, which may be caused by gastrointestinal problems, such as gas brought on by overfeeding or intestinal spasm. The seed pod can be chewed as a breath freshener. To make a tea: put 1-1/2 cups of cold water and 6-8 stars in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, turn off heat and let sit for 10 minutes. For digestive problems, drink a cup several times a day, if possible after each meal.
In the Kitchen
Star anise provides that je ne sais quoi – that intangible quality that gives a distinctive flavor to certain Chinese dishes, like Peking duck and spare ribs. The traditional Chinese cook wraps star anise in a muslin sack and puts it in “master stock” to which new ingredients can be continually added over months or even years. A master stock recipe is generally kept as a family secret, passed on through generations. In Europe, where the spice was unknown until the 17th century, it’s a popular flavoring for confections, jams, syrups and cordials.
This spice has a strong licorice flavor with a slight suggestion of cinnamon and clove. A little goes a long way! One whole star, or a pinch of ground, is enough to enhance a vegetable stir fry. Too much makes a dish bitter. In whole form the spice is not edible, so many cooks remove the star from the pot after cooking and place it on the platter or plate as garnish. The powder and seeds are edible and have an intriguing nuttiness.
A few ways to use star anise:
- In soups, stews and casseroles requiring long cooking, especially with beef or chicken.
- Place in pan when making roast chicken or duck.
- Add to stewed apples or plums.
- Add to the liquid when poaching chicken or fish.
- Rub the ground spice into poultry or game before cooking.