Feature Spice: Star Anise
We have a supplier about a two hour drive from us. Its always a pleasure to fill the car with the aromas of wonderful herbs and spices: curry spices, sweet spices, dried herbs, and chiles all fill my senses with warmth. But one spice comes to the fore after about an hour of driving: star anise. To taste star anise is to understand the full power of spices; its alluring and potent, its depth of flavour has near-endless complexity. By the time I arrive home I feel intoxicated and the fresh air is a welcome relief from the heavy aroma that is now becoming oppressive.
Of course I recover.
It is easy to identify star anise by its eight-pointed star shape and its rich licorice-like aroma. It’s not the same thing as anise seed, though they share similar flavour compounds. Star anise is far more potent and nuanced with a deep headiness combined with subtle sweet and herbal notes.
It’s native to China, where it’s been used as a medicine and culinary ingredient for millennia. In Chinese cuisine, it’s one of the ingredients of five spice powder, a spice rub common on roast meat like duck. It’s also a staple of red braising, in which fatty meats are simmered in soy sauce, rock sugar, and aromatic spices.
Star anise is remarkably and surprisingly versatile. It works just as well in baked goods, desserts, sauces, and red meats. A tiny petal can add a whole new dimension of flavour, making it a perfect secret ingredient for many dishes that would otherwise seem dull. Citrus flavours get a welcome twist from star anise whether in a vinaigrettes or citrus-based sauce. Tomato sauces and braised red meats are elevated immeasurably by the spice.
Used in desserts, star anise is at home in butter- and fruit-based desserts. It makes for an outstanding gingerbread or spice cake and adds intrigue to apple pie.