This beautiful star-shaped dark brown pod is the heady aromatic spice known as star anise. A native of China and Vietnam this spice's sweet and complex licorice-like flavor can be found in many cuisines worldwide. It's highly fragrant oil is valued for it's scent in perfumery, cosmetics, and toiletries.
An evergreen tree, star anise is closely related to the magnolia family. It's important to distinguish the edible Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) from the Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) as the latter is poisonous.
The star anise tree grows to about eight meters tall preferring sheltered shade or low light. It's leaves will burn or scorch in direct sunlight making it an excellent houseplant. The fruits are gathered when green before fully ripening in March or May and allowed to fully dry to a rusty brown for use.
Star anise's unique flavor comes from anethole which is the same compound that flavors the distantly related spices anise and fennel. To me, star anise is much stronger in flavor than anise or fennel with not only licorice-like pungency but also a little bit of a warm, sweet root beer or sassafras note. Cineole is a cinnamon-like flavored compound also found in star anise giving it a spicier and more nuanced taste than fennel or anise. Interestingly, star anise is also a good source of shikimic acid, a precursor in the pharmaceutical synthesis of the dubious yet oft prescribed anti-influenza drug oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu).
Star anise plays a rather limited role in Desi cuisines. My favorite way star anise is used across India is in the flavoring of many versions of masala chai (spicy milk tea). Every chaiwalla has their own special blend. In Northern India and Pakistan the warm aromatic flavors of a few petals of star anise often perfume the layered rice of the many regional renditions of the royal Mughal dish called biryani.
The garam masala mixes of South India often include star anise as it pairs brilliantly with chili, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves, cassia, fennel, garlic, and ginger. Perhaps as an influence of Chinese traders star anise is favored to flavor to many meat dishes in South India too.
In my own Scandinavian background I can recall star anise's familiar and distinctive flavor in the Christmas cookie pfeffernüsse, stewed fruits, and pickled beets.
Star Anise is certainly one of the most versatile of spices working well in sweet as well as savory dishes and spice mixes. Be sure to use it sparingly though as a few petals can lend dimension to a dish but too much can be overwhelming. It's quite inexpensive and if kept in an airtight container will last for at least a year.
1 whole star anise = 1/2 teaspoon ground star anise
A good substitution for 1 whole star anise would be: 1/2 teaspoon anise plus a pinch of allspice