Chances are you’ve had star anise and you didn’t even know it.
It’s a popular addition in Asian cuisine and grows naturally in northeast Vietnam and southwest China.
So, what is star anise?
Star anise is actually the fruit of an evergreen tree in the magnolia family. The star-shaped pods are picked from the trees before they ripen. The name comes from the shape of the pods.
The tiny pods have as many as 10 points, but usually grow with 8 points. They look like little, rust-colored stars once they’re dried. Each of the star points contains a seed. The pods and the seeds can be used whole, or they can be ground up and added to dishes.
Star anise is the main ingredient in Chinese Five Spice powder. The ground spice is mixed with cloves, cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, and fennel which blend into a sweet, peppery licorice flavor.
Star anise lends its flavor to dishes like Peking Duck and Braised Singapore Short Ribs…Yummy!
In Asian cooking, whole pods are used to flavor soups and stews. Added during the cooking, the pods are used like bay leaves. Once the dish is finished, the pods are removed. They don’t get soft and that makes them inedible in their whole form. They’re a little too crunchy!
Star anise has been used in southern China for more than 3,000 years in more ways than just cooking. The pods are used as a medicine, being a natural remedy for soothing sore throats and upset tummies.
Spice Trading On The Silk Road
If star anise grows naturally in China and Vietnam, how did everyone else get it?
Trade routes were established as far back as the Han Dynasty in China in 130 BC. These trade routes were called the Silk Road and connected all the places in the ancient world. Traders brought goods from west to east and back.
All kinds of wonderful goods were taken overland by way of the Silk Road. From the west, the traders filled up their caravans with saddles and tack for horses, honey, fruits, woolen blankets and rugs, gold and silver, and weapons. They also took western horses and camels and other animals for trade to the Far East.
These were things that weren’t available in those regions of the world at the time.
What kind of stuff did they trade for? Tea, perfumes, rice, paper, ivory, and bronze artifacts were among the products. Chinese silk was a very popular item, which is where the term “Silk Road” came from.
The people in the west also wanted spices like cinnamon, ginger, and… you guessed it! Star anise!
The spices which were traded were not grown in the west and were quite the novelty.
Because of its sweet, spicy flavor, star anise was used more in dessert recipes in western culture. People added it to things like puddings, cakes, breads, jams, syrups, and cookies!
Star anise also makes a tasty addition to tea. By brewing regular tea and adding a star anise pod (you only need one), it turns plain old tea into a drink infused with flavor. Just the thing for a chilly day!
This versatile spice has made its way around the globe, becoming a part of many types of cuisines. From savory to sweet, get creative in the kitchen and explore the variety of flavors of star anise!
You can try a recipe using star anise from our Singapore box at eat2explore!