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.
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.
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.