Don’t be intimidated by its dynamic shape; star anise is a deeply sweet and warming spice that deserves a place in your cabinet, next to the cloves and cinnamon.
Star anise is native to China, where it’s been used for over 3000 years as both seasoning and traditional medicine. It was introduced to Europe in the 16th century and was traded via Tea Road, a historic route where tea and other spices were transported from China to Europe.
Today, star anise remains a popular spice for chefs and home cooks throughout the world due to its unique flavor. It’s primarily grown in areas with tropical and subtropical climates, such as Southern China and much of Southeast Asia, then exported to other countries.
Star anise has a deeply sweet flavor, similar to licorice root, with warm and peppery undertones reminiscent of clove. It shares these flavor qualities with another spice of a similar name, anise seed. Though, contrary to popular belief, the two spices are not related.
The saccharine quality of star anise makes it a popular ingredient for adding depth to desserts, savory dishes, and even beverages. In Western cooking, star anise is most commonly used to flavor sweets such as cookies, cakes, jams, and pudding. It’s an essential ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, a seasoning blend used to flavor everything from roast pork to beef stew, as well as in pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup with a deep and complex flavor profile. The spice is also a popular ingredient for beverages. It imparts sweetness and warmth into Indian masala chai, French mulled wine, and some varieties of Thai milk tea.
Use star anise to bring out the savoriness of beef and poultry, complement the acidity of citrus and vinegar, or supplement the warming qualities of ginger and cinnamon. Keep in mind that star anise has a strong flavor that can easily become overpowering. When using it in its ground form, blend small amounts with other ground spices, working your way up as needed. If using whole star anise pods, simmer them in liquid, such as in a soup, stew, or braise, to gently infuse the dish with flavor before removing.