Star anise.

Let me start by telling you that I love star anise. It can do no wrong in my eyes, and there is pretty much no place it doesn’t belong… sweet, savoury, slow cooking, quick baking. It is a star (see what I did there?).

Anyway, it is potentially my favourite spice, although it’s likely as we continue on this food blogging path that I find at least another twenty favourite spices. I’m quite a commitment-phobe when it comes to food and flavours – I want them all.

The research.

What is it?

Star anise (scientific name Illicium verum) is sometimes called Chinese star anise. Here’s something I learned while researching it: there is also something called Japanese star aniseIllicium anisatum, which is highly toxic. So probably best not to mix them up, OK? Good.

It is star shaped (who knew?), with between five and ten pointed boat-shaped sections, about eight on average. These hard sections are seed pods. The fruit is picked before it can ripen, and dried. The stars are available whole, or ground.

Star anise is not related to anise as we know it in the Western world (which is anisum vulgare). It was first introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century (or the sixteenth – the jury is still out). The oil, produced by a process of steam extraction, is now substituted for European aniseed (because its cheaper) in commercial drinks like absinthe. I love the mythology around absinthe, and the dangerous feeling around it.

Where is it from?

Star anise is the fruit of an oriental tree, related to the magnolia, that grows pretty much exclusively in southern China, Japan and Indo-China.

Does it have any health benefits?

Star anise is reputed to assist with fungal infections, joint pain, sleep disorders, to aid digestion and ease a cough. The Chinese have used it to support pregnant women and new mothers in modulating hormone function.

The flavour.

It is a strong spice – a little bit goes a long way – and it is licorice-like in flavour. It is one of the key elements of Chinese Five Spice powder. There are four others – ha – which are, most commonly, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, fennel seeds and Sichuan pepper.

Ideas for star anise:

Obviously the Chinese use star anise a lot, mainly in savoury dishes. Stocks, soups, meat (particularly duck – I love duck) nearly always contain it.

I have read that star anise makes an excellent pairing with tomatoes, which makes perfect sense when you think about its flavour – that licorice hint is close to both fennel and basil, which are classic accompaniments to tomato. So next time I make a tomato sauce or bolognese, I am throwing a star in.

Star anise is great in all sorts of baking. Over Christmas I made a lot of shortbread and fell in love with the orange and star anise shortbread recipe from Sweet (the latest recipe book from Yotam Ottolenghi in collaboration with Helen Goh – who is originally from Australia – go Goh). The star anise gave it such a lovely depth of flavour and something a bit different.

The fun facts.

 About 90% of the world’s star anise crop is used for extraction of shikimic acid, a chemical used to make the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. This led to shortages of the spice in both 2005 and 2009 (swine flu time).

The rant.

Thinking about star anise led me to thinking about recipe books. Let’s talk about recipe books and my addiction to them. OK, let’s not talk about the addiction, but let’s talk about the quality of some offerings. There are many many fabulous books where every recipe you try works exactly as it should, the measurements are correct, the oven temp is pretty spot on and the cooking times are accurate. This may sound like a ‘duh, what did you expect’ kind of statement, but I have recently purchased a few books which are chronic non-workers in the recipe department and this makes me a little bit twitchy. If you are going to ask people to spend their dollars on your book, test the recipes. In domestic ovens. In different conditions. The waste of ingredients when recipes fail annoys the crap out of me!