What is star anise (Illicium verum)? It’s a culinary spice and medicinal herb that is cultivated from an evergreen tree native to tropical and subtropical areas of China and Vietnam. The herb is shaped like an eight-pointed star, hence its common name. Often used in Chinese and Indian cuisine, star anise also has several health benefits and is sometimes used for its fragrance in natural cosmetic products, such as soaps and toothpastes. In the culinary arts, star anise provides a pungent, powerful flavor with hints of licorice and clove in a variety of dishes, from desserts to beverages to savory stews. In fact, a single anise star can flavor an entire pot of soup or stew. Both the pods and seeds of the star anise plant are used in cooking and numerous natural remedies.
Star Anise Health Benefits
A warming spice, star anise is most widely used for treating digestive ailments such as abdominal cramps, bloating, belching, constipation, gas, indigestion and stomach aches. In China, the herb is often consumed after meals to help dispel gas and bloating caused by food. It is believed that star anise activates the body’s digestive enzymes, which helps assimilate heavy foods such as meats and fats. Some of the other health benefits of star anise include:
- Treating the Flu – Star anise contains a substance known as Shikimic acid, which is extracted and used to make the antiviral drug Tamiflu. This drug was widely used to treat the Swine flu in recent years and is often used in flu outbreaks around the world.
- Expelling Mucus - Not only does star anise hinder the flu, it also helps keep the lungs clear of mucus. Because of its expectorant properties, the herb promotes the liquefaction of thick mucus, which makes it easier to expel. Adding star anise to a hot beverage and drinking while you’re sick with a cold or the flu will expedite the healing process and help soothe painful coughing.
- Increasing Women’s Health – In Chinese medicine, star anise has enjoyed a reputation for promoting the health of the female reproductive organs, increasing breast milk secretion and improving libido. Although no scientific evidence exists to support these claims, the herb has been used for these purposes in China for at least 1,000 years.
- Helping You “Go” – Although also unproven, star anise has been traditionally used as a diuretic and laxative in China and other parts of Asia for hundreds of years. You may not be able to count on the herb in every instance, but it can’t hurt to add it to your food or drink when you’re having trouble going to the bathroom.
- Improving the Appetite – Because of the herb’s stimulating effect on the digestive system, it has also been used as an appetite enhancer for many decades in Asia. Sipping star anise tea is believed to help increase a diminished appetite, especially when the problem is related to illness or stress.
Preparation and Dosage
Star anise is available whole or ground in Asian food markets and some well-stocked grocery stores in the spices aisle. You can grind the herb yourself, if necessary, by placing the whole stars in a coffee grinder or by crushing the stars between two sheets of paper with a hammer. Ground or whole, the herb keeps well in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
In most cases, ground star anise is simply added to food or beverages and consumed similarly to cinnamon. It can also be made into star anise tea by steeping ½ tsp. of the dried herb in 1 cup boiling water for about 10 to 15 minutes, straining and drinking. You can sweeten the tea with honey, if desired. For more preparation ideas, see the star anise recipes below.
Do not confuse star anise with Japansese star anise (Illicium anisatum), which is toxic when consumed. Also, star anise is not the same thing as anise (Pimpinella anisum), another familiar culinary spice valued for its licorice-like flavor. Unlike regular anise, star anise cannot be given to infants. Otherwise, it is considered safe for use as a spice in food and in small dosages as a medicinal herb.
Star Anise Recipes
Because of its extensive use as a culinary spice, there are hundreds of star anise recipes out there. Below, we have outlined some of the most appealing. Remember that these recipes require star anise and not anise seed.
Star Anise Pudding
Serve this pudding as dessert after a heavy meal to prevent gas and indigestion.
Adapted from Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me by Jeremy Jackson
Yields: 8 servings
- 10 star anise
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- Place the star anise in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin.
- Combine the crushed star anise, heavy cream, milk and granulated sugar in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
- Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let the mixture steep for 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
- Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and slowly add the cream-anise mixture, whisking gently. Stir in the vanilla extract and salt.
- Strain the pudding through a fine mesh strainer into individual 4-ounce custard cups or a casserole dish for baking.
- Place the cups in a large baking dish and fill the dish about halfway with hot water from the tap. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until the pudding is softly set but still jiggly in the center.
- Remove the pudding from the water bath and allow to cool completely. Chill overnight for the best results, or for at least 6 to 8 hours before serving.
Star Anise-Butternut Squash Soup
Serve this warming, delicious soup in the fall or winter when butternut squash is in season. It’s especially soothing when you’re suffering from a cold or the flu.
Adapted from The Florida Keys Cookbook by Victoria Shearer
Yields: 6 servings
- 2 tbsp. butter
- ⅔ cup minced shallots
- ½ tsp. minced garlic
- 3 whole star anise
- 1 tbsp. finely grated ginger root
- 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- ¼ tsp. salt, or to taste
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots, minced garlic, star anise and ginger root, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is softened.
- Add the butternut squash pieces, chicken broth, water and salt. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender.
- Puree the soup, about 1 cup at a time, in a blender until very smooth. Transfer each cup of pureed soup into a large bowl until all the soup is done.
- Return the pureed soup to the pot and keep warm over low heat until served. Refrigerate leftovers in a covered container for up to one day, if necessary.
Lemongrass and Anise Tea
Drink this refreshing tea when you need an appetite stimulant or any time you’re suffering from digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, indigestion or heartburn.
Adapted from The Big Summer Cookbook by Jeff Cox
Yields: 4 servings
- 5 whole star anise
- 3 tbsp. dried lemongrass
- 4 cups boiling water
- 2 tbsp. honey, or to taste
- Place the star anise in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin.
- Place the crushed star anise and dried lemongrass in a teapot and add the boiling water. Add the honey to taste and stir to combine.
- Allow the tea to steep for 10 minutes, and then allow it to finish cooling. Serve over ice for the best results.
- Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients
- Ancient Wisdom Modern Kitchen
- The Herbal Kitchen
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