Teaching Tuesday-Star Anise, not Aniseed

Earlier this year we spent a Teaching Tuesday on Aniseed essential oil. While I did point out that aniseed is not the same thing as star anise, also called star aniseed to further confuse the issue, I didn't really discuss star anise in detail. So today's post is all about star anise!  To review about aniseed, see this post.
You may recall that star anise and aniseed, sometimes called just plain anise, are not closely related, botanically speaking, although they are both part of the magnolia classification. Star anise is the fruit of Illicium verum, an evergreen magnolia, native to China (but also cultivated in India, Japan, the Philippines, and even the eastern USA), while aniseed is the seed of Pimpinella anisum, which is native to the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, they both contain a certain amount of anethole, which is the chemical compound that is responsible for creating the licorice like scent and taste, and the anethole in the oils is what makes these oils crystallize at cool temperatures. As for taste, both are rather fresh, sweet and spicy, and as already mentioned, licorice like, but the star anise has a stronger, more pungent taste than the aniseed. 

Interestingly, the Illicium verum tree doesn't bear fruit until its sixth year, but once it does, it can continue to bear fruit for up to a century. The fruit is picked while still unripe, and then dried in the sun. The fruit is quite distinctive in its look, having eight canoe-shaped carpels on each fruit. (Sometimes you can find a pod with six or twelve carpels, but these are kind of like four-leaf clovers). In fact, the Chinese names for star anise (ba jiao, in Mandarin, and bat gok, in Cantonese) translate as "eight corners" in English.

Of course, one of the main uses of star anise is as a cooking spice, and as such, is one of the major components of the Chinese five spice powder. The five spice powder is comprised of clove, fennel, cinnamon or cassia, and  Szechuan pepper, in addition to the star anise, and this blend is the only common spice blend in Chinese cookery.  Star anise is a large part of of Chinese red cooking. This is where the meat is turned a deep reddish brown color as a result of braising in a dark soy broth. Of course star anise is also used to spice risottos, deserts, teas, and soups, as well as meat dishes. In Western cooking, star anise is primarily used in cake recipes and the poaching liquids for fruits, as well as some flavorful drinks.
Most of the time the star anise is added into recipes whole, steeped in the liquids and removed before eating. When the recipe calls for ground star anise (which is usually just in baking recipes), you need to remember that it is a potent spice, so it's best to grind it yourself and use small amounts at a time, until you reach the taste you desire. Do remember though, that, as with most spices, once you grind it the potency will begin to degrade immediately, so only grind what you need and store the rest in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. The star anise will keep in your pantry for two years and is fairly inexpensive if you buy it in an Asian market. They sell it in clear bags, for under four dollars a pound. And when you open it, don't worry if you find a lot of seeds out of the pods. The pod is actually more aromatic and more flavorful than the seeds. It is the pods, which are called schizocarps, that you will use. 
Aside from its culinary uses, star anise is also used for healing and in some spiritual rituals. It is said to enhance psychic powers and bring good luck as well. It is even supposed to protect against the dreaded Evil Eye. 

In fact, laboratory studies prove that Star anise possesses antimicrobial, antibacterial, antioxidant, insecticidal, analgesic, sedative, and convulsive properties. Drunk in a tea, it is a popular rheumatism remedy, and the chewing of its seeds after meals is said to aide in digestion.  In fact, star anise is a major source of shikimic acid, which is a primary ingredient in the anti-influenza drug, Tamiflu.

As an interesting side note; in 2005 there was a [temporary] shortage of star anise, due to the making of the drug Tamiflu. Later that year they found a way to synthetically produce the shikimic acid needed for the tamiflu. The swine flu outbreak in 2009 led to another series of shortages as the tamiflu stocks were built up around the world. This sent the prices of star anise soaring sky high. Eventually it did drop back down, and in fact, it remains fairly low, and is a less expensive alternative to the higher priced anise seed. 

There is also a Japanese star anise, Illicium anisatum, which is a similar tree, but bears an inedible fruit. Its fruit contains sikimitoxin, which is highly toxic when ingested. There has been documented cases of Ingestion of this species of anise [in tea], which has caused serious neurological issues (ie. seizures), as well as severe inflammation of the kidneys, urinary tract and digestive organs. So care must be taken to choose the correct anise. This anise is generally burned as incense in Japan

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