Almost unheard of in Britain when I was born, star anise is now an indispensible part of everyone's spice cupboard, chefs and home cooks alike. It's an incredibly versatile Chinese spice.
Star anise plant
Star anise flower and ripening fruit
Dried star anise fruits
Star anise is cultivated in Southern China and Vietnam and is not known in the wild state. Most imports originate from China, but the spice is also cultivated in Laos, in the Philippines and in Jamaica.
The characteristically shaped fruits (pods), always used in dried state. The fruits normally have a regular eight-pointed shape, but individual specimens with a larger number of carpels are occasionally found. The essential oil resides in the pericarp of the fruit, not in the seed.
Illiciaceae (star anise family).
Warm, sweet and aromatic, very like anise but stronger.
The Chinese names of star anise, Cantonese bat gok and Mandarin ba jiao both mean "octagonal" and allude to the eight-pointed shape of star anise fruits "eight corner spice". In Chinese herbal medicine, star anise is known as ba jiao hui xiang "eight-cornered fennel". Chinese "big fennel" (daai wuih heong in Cantonese and da hui xiang in Mandarin) denotes anise rather than star anise, whereas the same Kanji in Japanese (daiuikyō) means star anise and the corresponding Korean name taehoihyang means star anise but can also be applied to nigella. English "badian anise" and related names in other European tongues (Spanish badián, Latvian badjans and Russian badyan) are derived from the Persian name of star anise, badiyan, whose origin is unknown.
Owing to its olfactory similarity to anise, star anise is named after anise in many European countries, often with a qualifying epithet referring to the Asian origin or the characteristic star-like shape, e.g. Turkish çin anason, French anis de la Chine "Chinese anise", Estonian tähtaniis, Polish anyż gwiazdkowaty and Italian anice stellato, all meaning "star-like anise". In the opposite way, European anise is known as hạt hồi "grain-shaped star anise" in Vietnam and as badiyan Romi "Roman star anise" in Iran.
The genus name illicium is derived from Latin illicere "allure", probably because of the sweet and attractive fragrance. Species name verum is Latin for "true" (in this context implying the genuine plant and not a different anise-like species).
The eight-pointed star-shaped pods of star anise are a popular spice in China, a country with one of the world's most diverse, complex and oldest culinary traditions.
Whereas the familiar Cantonese, Beijinese and Sichuan cuisines may little or no use of star anise as an individual spice, it is an valuable ingredient in the sweet Shanghai cuisine, particularly known for the technique of red braising. All over China, however, Chinese five spice (wu xiang fen, ng geung fun, ngung heung fun, hung-liu) containing star anise is known and valued. The other four spices in this mixture are Chinese cinnamon (or cinnamon), cloves, fennel and Sichuan pepper, usually in equal parts (with ginger, greater galangale, black cardamom and liquorice as optional additions). The spices are kept whole and are powdered before use.
Chinese five spice is often added to a batter of egg white and cornstarch, which is used to coat meat and vegetables to keep them moist and succulent during deep-frying. Meat is also frequently coated with a mixture of corn starch and Chinese five spice and deep-fried. Chinese five spice is also used in marinades for meat to be stir-fried.
The subtle aroma of Chinese five spice is particularly effective in steamed foods, such as pork belly. For this recipe, the so-called five-flower cut is used that consists of three fatty and two lean layers. The meat is marinated in soy sauce and garlic, coated by a mixture of Chinese five spice powder and ground, toasted rice and then steamed until very tender (wu hua rou). This pork dish is very mild, but highly aromatic and pleasing.
Outside of China, star anise is less valued. In Northern Vietnam, it is popular for beef soups and in Thailand it is often employed in long-simmered stews. It is also used as a flavorant for cha dam yen "iced tea", brewed from black tea flavoured with star anise powder (optionally with cinnamon, liquorice, vanilla and orange) and enjoyed with crushed ice, sugar and evaporated milk. To obtain a bright orange colour, azo dyes (typically, tartrazine) are added.
Star anise plays a role in Persian and Pakistani cuisines and was introduced to Indonesia from India, but today is hardly ever used except where cooking still adheres to the Mogul style. Star anise is also employed by the Arab-influenced cooking of Malaysia and Southern Thailand.
Star anise has also found some culinary use in the West, its main application being as a (cheaper) substitute for anise in mulled wine, desserts and liqueurs. Most anise liqueurs (Pernod, Anisette, Pastis) have the anise partly substituted by star anise (see also mugwort and my comments on absinthe).