The aromatic Asian star

Star anise is the seedpod of an evergreen tree native to southern China and North Vietnam; it is a member of the magnolia family. Today, it is grown in India, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as in China and Vietnam. The trees first bear fruit after six years, and they may continue to fruit for as long as one hundred years.

Dried star anise has a striking appearance. It looks like an eight-pointed star, and each canoe-shaped “point” splits open to reveal a hard, shiny tan or brown seed. Several of its various Chinese names translate as “eight points.” Like allspice, cloves, and pepper, the spice is harvested before it has ripened and then dried in the sun.

Dried star anise is mahogany to dark reddish-brown in color. It has a pungent warm, sweet, spicy aroma, like that of licorice, and its flavor is similar to that of aniseeds but stronger. Although they are unrelated botanically, aniseeds and star anise both contain the essential oil anethole. Star aniseeds have less flavor than the dried casings that surround them. Ground star anise is made from the whole dried spice. The reddish-brown powder has a warm, pungent aroma and strong licorice flavor, with a hint of cloves and a slight bitterness. Because the dried spice is very hard, if you need ground star anise, it is better to buy it preground rather than attempt to grind it in a mortar and pestle or even a spice grinder. Whole star anise keeps almost indefinitely.

Star anise is an important ingredient in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, and it also seasons Indian and Indonesian dishes. It is pungent, so it should be used sparingly, whether whole or ground. It pairs well with chicken and other poultry; Chinese cooks often add one or two star anise to the cavity of a chicken before roasting it, and it also flavors red-cooked duck. It is an ingredient in soups and stocks, including Chinese master stocks. Star anise adds fragrance to pho, the classic Vietnamese beef soup, and it also flavors long-cooked stews and braises. In most cuisines, the spice is usually added whole to stews and similar dishes, then removed before serving. In India (badian is its Indian name), it is used for biryanis and other rice dishes and in curries. Ground star anise is an ingredient in some curry powders, and it is the dominant flavor of Chinese five-spice powder. Unlike most spices, star anise is not well known in the West, although it is used to flavor anisette and some liqueurs.

MEDICINAL USES: The flavor of star anise lingers on the tongue, and it can be chewed as a breath freshener or as an aid to digestion. It is considered a stimulant and diuretic, and it is sometimes used as an antiseptic. In some Eastern cultures, the spice is thought to relieve the ache of rheumatism and to cure colic. Star anise tea is prescribed for sore throats and various other ills.