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Star Anise: A Tasty and Versatile Spice With a Licorice Flavor

Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

Star Anise as Part of an Advent Wreath

Star Anise as Part of an Advent Wreath

Attractive and Flavorful Fruits

Star anise plants have attractive, unusual, and very flavorful fruits that smell and taste like licorice. The fruit is woody and is shaped like a star with eight rays or a flower with eight petals. Each “petal” is a seed pod that contains a brown seed. The seeds contain a volatile and aromatic oil that has many uses.

The intact fruit has a strong, pungent, and mildly sweet taste that somewhat resembles the taste of anise seeds but is slightly weaker. Anise is an unrelated plant despite its similar name. Star anise is an evergreen shrub or tree, whereas anise is a herbaceous plant that is related to parsley.

Star anise is sold as whole fruits, pieces of fruit, or a ground spice. The best spice flavor is obtained when the fruit is ground just before use. The stars or ground spice are tasty additions to both sweet and savory foods.

Each "petal" of  a star anise fruit contains a seed.

Each "petal" of a star anise fruit contains a seed.

Taxonomy

Star anise belongs to the plant family known as the Schisandraceae, which contains only three genera. Anise (or aniseed) belongs to the larger Apiaceae family, which contains parsley, celery, carrots, and other plants.

An Important Precaution

There’s one very important precaution that must be taken when purchasing or using star anise, especially when it's sold as a tea. The fruits must come from the plant with the scientific name Illicium verum, which is often known as Chinese star anise. This plant grows mainly in parts of China and Vietnam and produces fruits that are safe to eat.

Japanese star anise (scientific name Illicium anisatum) is a related plant, but its fruits are toxic and dangerous when they enter the body. Both plants are often simply called “star anise,” so consumers should check carefully to ensure that only pure Chinese star anise is present in their spice. Reputable companies make sure that their product contains only the Chinese species, but it's still important to be careful.

There have been some reports of harmful effects resulting from the ingestion of Chinese star anise, but researchers believe that this is because the spice was mixed with the cheaper Japanese version.

This is a scientific illustration of the Chinese star anise plant from 1833.

This is a scientific illustration of the Chinese star anise plant from 1833.

Cultivation

The star anise plant usually grows as a tree. Its leaves are lanceolate, or shaped like a lance head. The flowers are yellow. The fruits are picked while they are green and are typically sun-dried before being used. The plant can be grown in North America, but special care is needed because it can't tolerate low temperatures.

Unripe Green Star Anise Fruits From a Farm in China

Unripe Green Star Anise Fruits From a Farm in China

Some Uses of the Spice

A star anise fruit generally has eight seed pods, although the number can vary. It has a complex taste in which the dominating licorice flavor is accompanied by a background that is minty and tangy at the same time.

The spice provides a lovely flavor to teas, infusions, mulled ciders, some wines, and coffee. Adding one or two stars to slow-cooked foods such as stewed fruit, savory stews, beans, and simmered meats enhances the taste. The stars are generally removed before the food is served. The ground spice makes a great addition to baked goods like cakes and cookies. Some people like to add the spice to cooked porridge (oatmeal) and grains. It's also said to go well with tomatoes, although I've never tried this combination myself.

The spice has non-culinary applications. Its essential oil is used to add fragrance to perfumes and soaps, for example. The oil is also added to some toothpastes and mouthwashes to provide a pleasant taste.

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Spice Use in Different Cultures

Star anise is an ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder. This popular Asian seasoning traditionally contains ground cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns, although today a different spice combination may be used in the recipe. The powder is used with poultry, pork, and seafood. It's sometimes added to stir-fried vegetables and is also used in desserts. Garam masala, a popular Indian and South Asian spice mixture, commonly contains star anise as well.

Another dish that traditionally contains star anise is Vietnamese pho. This is a type of beef noodle soup that contains a broth made from spices and marrow bones. Tea eggs, a popular snack in China and Chinese communities, are also flavored with the spice. To make tea eggs, hard-boiled eggs are cracked and then placed in a tea that contains spices. The liquid is absorbed into the shell and into the egg itself, creating a marbled effect. The eggs are eaten cold.

An essential oil can be extracted from the spice and used as a flavoring agent in items such as jams and liqueurs. Anisette, sambuca, and ouzo are usually flavored with star anise oil instead of oil from anise seeds, since star anise is generally cheaper to obtain.

Star Anise Spiced Pear Crumble Recipe

Other Uses of the Spice

Star anise may be used with other strongly scented spices to provide fragrance to a room. The spice is popular in potpourris, especially at Christmas. The oil is sometimes used in aromatherapy.

The fruits are sometimes chewed as a breath freshener. The intact fruit has a woody texture that isn't very appealing, however. I find that chewing it irritates my mouth and tongue unless I use only a small amount of a star.

Star anise contains a relatively high level of shikimic acid compared to other plants. The shikimic acid is extracted from the fruit and used as the first substance in a series of reactions that ends with the production of oseltamivir. Oseltamivir is a prescription medication that fights both influenza A and influenza B viruses and is sold under the trade name of Tamiflu. Shikimic acid for Tamiflu manufacture is also obtained from the fermentation of glucose by a special strain of E. coli bacteria.

Medicinal Use

Although shikimic acid from star anise can be used to make a medicine that fights viruses, there is no evidence that the intact spice is antiviral.

Star Anise, Pear, and Tamarind Tarte Tatin Recipe

Possible Health Benefits of Chinese Star Anise

Star anise contains a substance called anethole, which is responsible for the licorice flavor of star anise fruits, anise seeds, and fennel seeds. (Like anise, fennel is a member of the family Apiaceae.) Anethole is dissolved in the oil inside the plant but is insoluble in water.

Under certain conditions, anethole is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical. Anethole extracted from plants has killed microbes in lab equipment. Researchers don't yet know whether the chemical fights microbes when it is inside plants or their parts—including star anise fruits—or whether anethole is antimicrobial inside the human body. The chemical may need to reach a certain concentration in order to fight microbes. In addition, it's possible that our body may break it down before it has a chance to work. More research is needed.

Star anise has traditionally been used to relieve discomfort in the digestive system. At the moment, WebMD says there is insufficient evidence that the spice has health benefits. The Chinese version is considered to be safe when used in normal food quantities, however.

Japanese Star Anise or Illicium anisatum

Chinese star anise has been used as a spice for a long time without harmful effects and might have health benefits. In contrast, Japanese star anise is poisonous. It contains sikimitoxin, which causes convulsions, and anisatin, which causes dangerous neurological effects. Star anise must be bought from a reputable source and must be the pure, uncontaminated Chinese species.

It's useful to remember the scientific name of the Chinese species (Illicium verum) because companies may say that their product is from China or they may identify it by its scientific name. I remember the name because "verum" is the Latin word for truth. Seeing the scientific name of the spice reminds me that it's the true one to buy.

WebMD says that children should not be given star anise unless it's accompanied by a reliable verification that it doesn't contain the Japanese version. It also recommends that pregnant and nursing women avoid the spice. The small and developing bodies of infants sometimes find it harder to get get rid of toxins than more mature ones do and are often more sensitive to the effects of the chemicals.

How to Make Star Anise Chicken

Buying and Using the Spice

I can get packets of star anise fruits in a nearby produce store and in a health food store in my area. The spice is also sold online. The whole stars can be added to a dish that contains liquid to provide an infusion of flavor. Alternatively, they can be crushed in a coffee grinder and mixed with food. Cooks often state that one ground star anise fruit equals 1/2 teaspoon of ground anise seeds.

If the spice isn't used soon after purchase, it should be stored in an airtight container, preferably in its intact form. This will help to maintain its taste and fragrance.

Although it's delicious, star anise should be used in small quantities. It has a strong flavor that could overwhelm the taste of a meal if a large amount is added. In a small amount, though, the spice from Illicium verum is a wonderful addition to foods.

References

  • Star anise facts from McGill University
  • Some uses of star anise from the Smithsonian Magazine
  • Star anise information from WebMD
  • Antifungal activity of anethole in the essential oil of star anise fruit from PubMed, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Anethole inhibits growth of multidrug resistant toxigenic Vibrio cholerae strains in vitro from The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science (Abstract)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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