Varieties: Star Anise, Whole Aniseed, Ground Aniseed
The hollow many-branched stalks of the anise plant can reach 50 – 80 centimetres in height. The upper leaves are feathery and the basal leaves are lobated. The small whitish flowers form a large number of umbels. The fruits, known as aniseed, are hard downy seeds about a centimetre in length. Oval, they are greyish green and have a spicy, slightly sweet flavour. The seeds detach easily when ripe.
The fruit of the species Pimpinella anisum, aniseed is sometimes confused with the somewhat similar-tasting seeds of plants such as fennel, dill, caraway, and cumin. All of these plants belong to the Umbelliferae family.
Star anise, on the other hand, is the fruit of the Illicium verum, an evergreen tree of the Magnoliaceae family that grows to about 8 metres in height. Native to south-eastern China, it is very common in central Asia. Also known as badian, star anise has much the same flavour and properties as aniseed.
The Chinese have been using star anise for thousands of years. It was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century by an English navigator, and was widely used as bait in mousetraps (whence its Latin name, Illicium, meaning “lure” or “bait”). The lance-shaped leaves resemble bay or magnolia leaves. Its large, highly aromatic flowers are light yellow and the woody fruits are reddish brown. Each point of the star shaped fruit contains a green oval seed with longitudinal ridges. The flavour of these seeds is stronger and sharper than that of aniseed; indeed, a few star anise seeds are enough to flavour an entire dish. Star anise keeps its flavour longer than aniseed.
This aromatic herb is native to the western Mediterranean region and Egypt, where it still grows wild. Mentioned in the Bible, anise is one of the world’s oldest seasonings. The Romans served desserts sprinkled with anise to ease digestion. In the Middle Ages, anise was used as a drug and an aphrodisiac. It was introduced to Europe only in the 14th century, originally to flavour bread.
Anise is particularly popular in Europe, North Africa, and Turkey. It is cultivated intensively in the South of France and is also grown in Italy, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, and Mexico.
Anise is said to be diuretic, carminative, stomachic, antispasmodic, digestive, an expectorant, and a stimulant. It is used to tone up the heart, stimulate digestion, combat flatulence, and soothe coughs and asthma. Its essential oil contains anethole, a substance also found in fennel.
To make a herbal tea with a tonic effect on the nervous and digestive systems, add about 1 tablespoon crushed aniseed, 4 – 5 stars, or a few leaves to a cup of hot water. Boil the mixture for 2 minutes and let it steep for 10 minutes.
Unless you plan to use a large quantity of anise, buy only a small amount at a time to make sure the seeds keep their flavour.
Using Anise leaves, which are more delicate than the seeds, are delicious cooked or raw. Use them to season salads, soups, cream cheese, fish, vegetables, and tea. The more widely used fruits (both aniseed and star anise) heighten the taste of sweet and salty dishes alike. Use them to flavour or decorate compotes, cakes cookies, breads (olive bread, pretzels, gingerbread), salads, soups, vegetables, fish, and fowl. The roots are sometimes utilized to make wine.
Anise can be used as a substitute for or be mixed with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg in compotes, cakes, pies, breads, and so on.
Anise is a widely used to make liquorice, cough drops, and candies, as well as alcoholic beverages such as pastis (France), anisette (North Africa), ouzo (Greece), raki (Turkey), arak (Egypt), and sambuca (Italy).
Anise is a common ingredient in Arab and Indian cuisine. In India it is sometimes used in hot spicy mixtures such as garam masala and curries. People chew it to freshen their breath. In Asia star anise is used to season pork, chicken, rice, coffee, and tea.