What is star anise?

Anise or anise seeds (Pimpinella anisum).

Star anise is an Asian cooking ingredient of Illicium verum, an aromatic evergreen tree found in southern China, Vietnam and parts of Japan. The tree is widely cultivated for its useful culinary spice and is also grown ornamentally in other parts of the world. This spice is widely used in Chinese cuisine, as well as in foods from Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and Vietnam. It consists of the dried pods of the tree and has a flavor very similar to anise, a spice widely used in European cuisine. Star anise, however, is a little more spicy, bitter, and intense.

Dessert bread made with star anise.

The flowers of the Illicium verum tree are purple to red, with single-rayed petals surrounding a central stamen. When the flowers die, they leave ray pods behind. Typically, the fruits have eight rays, each containing small brown seeds, and are dried for sale. Most Chinese markets sell whole or ground star anise, although whole seeds are preferable as they can be ground for each use. If kept in airtight containers in a cool, dark place, whole fruits will stay fresh for approximately one year. Ground star anise can be roasted to revive the flavor.

Star anise is a common ingredient in pho.

In Chinese cuisine, this ingredient is used in the classic Chinese five-spice blend and can also be found as a main seasoning in a variety of dishes and desserts. It is also a crucial ingredient in Thai tea, a spicy, flavorful and aromatic drink served throughout Thailand. It also appears in Vietnamese cuisine, especially in noodle broth called pho. Some European cooks have also adopted star anise, using it the same way they would conventional aniseed.

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In traditional Chinese medicine, star anise is used to soothe an upset stomach and as a stimulant, although it has not been approved for this medical use in the West. It also contains shikimic acid, a compound used in the manufacture of some flu medicines. For this reason, some people use it to treat flu symptoms, although this is not recommended, as shikimic acid has to undergo several chemical transformations before it is effective as a flu medication. Care should also be taken with star anise teas and homeopathic products as they are not regulated in many nations and this spice contains substances that can be neurotoxic in high concentrations.

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