If you’re familiar with Chinese cuisine, then star anise, with its distinctive, eight-pointed shape, will be no stranger to your kitchen. Its distinctive taste – with even more of the same compound that gives ordinary anise and liquorice their unique flavour – packs a huge punch in that small, pointy package and represents one of the five major spices in Chinese cooking.
Those less accustomed to cooking Chinese dishes might not consider star anise a very versatile spice. How could a flavour as strong as it is unique not steal the show in any dish? Don’t be intimidated! Yes, star anise is strong, but it can add a delightful edge to all sorts of dishes.
First, a little background
There is a good reason why East Asian, especially Chinese cuisine, makes good use of star anise. The Illicium verum tree from which it comes is native to southeastern China and Vietnam and is mostly grown in those places, thanks to very specific soil conditions the tree needs to thrive (sorry, home-growers: star anise will be a tricky addition to your garden!)
Yet that has not stopped other cultures from integrating star anise into their food, dishes and even medicine. And not just traditional medicine, either. Star anise is an important precursor for Tamiflu, one of the most common flu vaccines.
How to cook with it
Star anise tastes like liquorice, which is… sweet? Spicy? Something else?
While its flavour may be hard to pin down, star anise pairs well with all sorts of sweet and savoury dishes. Again, it is especially common in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine (including classic pho soup), but it is also a staple spice throughout Asia, including in Thai and Indian curries. Here is a potato curry recipe from Divine Eats that makes excellent use of star anise, a massaman curry from Silk Road Diary and a star anise-licious Thai prawn curry.
Another common use for star anise is to supercharge meat with its distinctive, sharp aroma, whether with a seasoning, marinade or sauce. Star anise pairs well with both poultry and red meat. Here are recipes for star anise-marinated chicken, beef and roast pork shoulder.
Enough savoury, though, because it’s in the desserts that star anise really shines, both in terms of flavour and aesthetics. Try this liquorice root beer and for something harder, toss the extra into some mulled wine for a sweet, spicy dessert drink. Don’t miss these anise-infused sugar cookies, which you can top with spicy/sweet apple butter.