Star Anise[ PURCHASE INFO ]
Star Anise: Star Anise is the fruit of an evergreen tree originally from southern China. It has a mild licorice or anise-like flavor, hence the name. Star anise is not related to anise, but the same compound, anethol, gives both their characteristic flavor. Anise, or aniseed as it's also known, is the tiny seed of an annual plant originating in the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. By contrast the star anise fruit is an eight pointed star that is just over an inch across. Star anise is popular in Asian cusine and is an important ingredient in traditional Chinese Five Spice Powder, Indian Garam Masala and other Asian spice mixes. There is also a Japanese star anise, but it is toxic.
It's aromatic nature has lead to it's place in folk medicine as a remedy for certain ailments. In fact, star anise plays an important role in the production of the drug "Tamiflu". Star anise is the commercial source of shikimic acid which is used in it's production. Some progress has been made regarding artificial shikimic acid, but drug production still causes a shortage of star anise fruit in direct proportion to the severity of flu season. The star shaped fruit contains pea sized seeds, and it's these seeds that contain the shikimic acid. Extraction of the acid from the seeds takes a year!
Star anise is far less expensive than aniseed so it has become popular in the West as it can be substituted for aniseed in most recipes. Star anise has a slightly bitter and stronger taste compared to aniseed, which some people prefer. Star anise fruit is always dried, so it has a long shelf life. Dried star anise can be added whole to dishes that will be cooked for some time, or it can be ground and added to any dish where a licorice flavor is needed. But most commonly you will find star anise in prepared foods you already consume!