Welcome back to The Spice Cabinet series. Today we explore star anise. Star anise is an attractive spice due to both its diverse characteristics, as well as its stunning appearance. The beauty and intricate details of this spice are prime examples of Mother Nature’s master craftsmanship. Native to China and Vietnam, star anise is a 6-8 pronged pod produced by the evergreen shrub, Illicium Verum. It belongs to the plant family, Schisandraceae. Star anise is harvested before it blooms between March and May then dried turning from bright green to deep brown.
Once dried, Star Anise is sold whole, in parts, or ground into a fine powder. Star anise has a licorice flavor with hints of mint; sweet yet tangy. It is often confused with anise as the name and flavors are similar but in actuality not related. Star anise is however related to the Japanese star anise which is harmful to ingest. It is highly suggested to buy star anise from a reputable source to ensure you are consuming the safe Chinese varietal and not the harmful Japanese version.
Star Anise has long been intertwined in Chinese history dating back 3,000 years. It is present in its folklore, culinary, and medicinal uses. It was general wisdom that star anise warded off evil and good luck would fall upon you if you found the spice with more than eight pods. During the 17th century it began its movement into western civilization through the spice trades. Many Mediterranean cultures utilized star anise for its energy boosting and digestive properties which lead to developing digestives. Ouzo was produced in Greece, Raki in Turkey, Sambuca in Italy, and Pastis in France.
Star anise’s presence in Eastern medicine is deeply rooted in its history, however it also possesses a strong reputation in Western medicine. Its most well-known form comes in the influenza combating drug Tamilful due to its high level of shikimic acid, the flu fighter. Star anise is known for its anti inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifungal properties. Research has shown that star anise possesses anticancer abilities as it combats tumor growth. The potential for this spice to break barriers against numerous ailments has resulted in its rising popularity in the pharmacological world. Research trials focused on the pharmacological potentials of star anise have rapidly increased.
Star anise is utilized in essential oils, potpourris, perfumes and soaps and herbal teas. The oil from star anise is added to toothpastes and mouthwashes to enhance the flavor. Chewing the pod after meals, although not the most texturally pleasing, assists in digestion.
Star anise is a versatile spice with the ability to be utilized in both savory and sweet dishes. It is most well known as one of the spices in the Chinese 5 Spice blend, Indian Garam Masala, Vietnamese pho, and Italian sambuca. Using star anise in its whole pod form works best as it does lose its strength once ground. Star anise brings a certain sweetness, but using too much can lead to bitter results. Its best added to dishes slowly in order to have control of end results. Many articles suggest adding a pod to your slow simmering marinara sauce, although I am not sure how the Italian nonnas would feel about this!
This past year I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Florence. It was at the roof deck bar of the Kraft Hotel, overlooking the beauty that Florence lends her visitors, I had the most delicious cocktail which featured a flaming star anise pod placed on top of the finished product. The mixologist took gin and basil and created a tasteful masterpiece which I miss greatly! Bravo!
If you find yourself in Florence, you are strongly advised to imbibe this creation, if not just for the medicinal properties outlined above!