What is Star Anise?

Mary McMahon

Star anise is an Asian cooking ingredient from Illicium verum, an aromatic evergreen tree found in Southern China, Vietnam, and parts of Japan. The tree is extensively cultivated for its useful culinary spice, and is also grown ornamentally in other parts of the world. This spice is widely used in Chinese cuisine, as well as in foods from Southeast Asian nations including Thailand and Vietnam. It consists of the dried seedpods of the tree, and has a flavor much like anise, a spice widely used in European cuisine. Star anise, however, is slightly more pungent, bitter, and intense.

A dessert bread made with star anise.
A dessert bread made with star anise.

The flowers of the Illicium verum tree are purple to red, with simple rayed petals around a central stamen. When the flowers die off, they leave rayed pods behind. Typically, the pods have eight rays, each containing small brown seeds, and they are dried for sale. Most Chinese markets carry star anise in whole or ground form, although whole seeds are preferable, as they can be ground for each use. If kept in airtight containers in a cool, dark place, whole pods will stay fresh for approximately one year. Ground star anise can be toasted to revive the flavor.

Anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum).
Anise or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum).

In Chinese cooking, this ingredient is used in the classic Chinese five spice mixture, and can also be found as a primary spice in a variety of dishes and desserts. It is also a crucial ingredient in Thai tea, a spicy, flavorful, and aromatic beverage served throughout Thailand. It also appears in Vietnamese cuisine, especially in the noodle broth called pho. Some European cooks have adopted star anise as well, using it much like they would use conventional anise.

In traditional Chinese medicine, star anise is used to calm stomach complaints and as a stimulant, although it has not been approved for this medical use in the West. It also contains shikimic acid, a compound used in the manufacture of some influenza medications. For this reason, some people use it to treat the symptoms of flu, although this is not advised, as shikimic acid needs to undergo several chemical transformations before it is effective as a flu medication. Care should also be taken with star anise teas and homeopathic products, as they are not regulated in many nations, and this spice contains substances which can be neurotoxic in high concentrations.

Star anise is a common ingredient in pho.
Star anise is a common ingredient in pho.

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Discussion Comments


Star anise is used in chicken soup to bring out the chicken flavor. It's fantastic.


The first time I saw star anise was at a friend's house. It was lying on the counter, and I screamed and jumped when I caught a glimpse of it. It looked just like a big brown spider!


Some people buy star anise and use it in potpourri. It's brown and fragrant, so it fits right in with the other dried aromatic items.

I've seen bowls of potpourri that contained star anise and cinnamon sticks. There were also dried flowers and seed pods present.

I think that if you add essential oil to the mix, you will get a more fragrant bowl. I've never made potpourri, but I do know that it is super intense.


@lighth0se33 – My sister has used star anise spice in tea, and to me, it tastes like licorice. I've heard other people describe it this way, too.

It reminds me of the flavor of root beer or black jelly beans. However, it is a little less intense than straight licorice. I guess it depends on how much you use, too.


What is a star anise flavor comparable to? Does it taste like anything you may have eaten before, or is it completely unique?


I bought a large shrub/tree. It's called anise. How can I tell if the plant will be the right one. There must be a leaf difference in the poison one compared to the one you eat.


If you use the whole star anise for cooking soup or tea and eat every day for a month, will that help the people to prevent catching the swine flu? Is it like a vaccine?


what is chamat?

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