Spices come in all shapes and sizes, and star anise (Illicium verum Hook.f.)1 is a classic example. Although this spice is most popularly known for its dark and attractive color and unique star shape, star anise contains powerful health benefits that can work wonders for your body.
What Is Star Anise?
Star anise grows as dark brown pods with eight segments, each containing a pea-sized seed. This spice hails from an evergreen tree plant that is native to southern China and northeast Vietnam, although it is cultivated in countries like Laos, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.2,3
Star anise tastes much like a standard anise seed, but slightly more bitter, which is why some chefs use it to provide a licorice flavor for some dishes.4
Some people think that star anise and anise seed are the same. While both spices contain an essential oil called anethole, their similarities end here. For starters, anise seed belongs to the Apiaceae family,5 versus star anise that comes from the Schisandraceae family.6
Anise seed is used more in Western dishes, particularly in Greek and French cuisine, since it has an intense, aromatic flavor that's good for sauces. On the other hand, star anise is more common in Asian cooking.7
Health Benefits of Star Anise
If you're looking for a flavorful spice with health benefits to boot, star anise might be a good choice, due to its health benefits, which include:8
✓ Providing antioxidants for the body: Star anise is a good source of two antioxidants: the essential oil linalool and vitamin C that helps protect the body against cellular damage caused by free radicals and environmental toxins.
A study published in the journal Chemico-Biological Interactions revealed that cancer development was prevented among animals fed star anise.9
However, more research is needed to show the full extent of star anise's healing capacity.
✓ Possessing antifungal and antibacterial capabilities: South Korean researchers proved that star anise extracts and essential oils have antifungal abilities, especially against candida albicans, a common yeast infection.10
Star anise was also shown to have antibacterial properties, as Taiwanese scientists discovered that four antimicrobial compounds derived from the spice were effective against nearly 70 strains of drug-resistant bacteria.11
✓ Fighting conditions like influenza and cough: Star anise can fight influenza because of its high shikimic acid content.
A 2011 study discovered that shikimic acid, together with a plant antioxidant called quercetin, enhanced the immune system function, which helped protect the body against viral diseases.
Moreover, drinking a cup of star anise tea three times a day could support cough relief and soothe a sore throat.
✓ Improving digestion and dealing with digestive complaints: Star anise tea could assist in alleviating conditions like gas, abdominal cramps, indigestion, bloating and constipation.
✓ Treating sleep disorders: Traditional usage and anecdotal evidence revealed that star anise might have mild sedative properties that could aid in calming nerves.
✓ Enhancing women's health: Apart from boosting the immune system, star anise can help combat illnesses that are common during a pregnancy, making this spice useful for pregnant women.
Nursing mothers should consider adding star anise into their meals too, since it can increase breastmilk production.
Furthermore, the compound anethole present in star anise exhibits an estrogenic effect that could regulate hormonal function in women.
How to Use Star Anise
Star anise is mainly used for culinary purposes, especially in Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, and/or added to alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Star anise powder is also combined with cloves, fennel seeds, Chinese cinnamon and Sichuan pepper to make Chinese five-spice powder.12,13
The star anise plant has decorative purposes too, especially in tropical climates, because of its small, scented flowers and fragrant leaves.
Lastly, star anise can have medicinal purposes. In traditional Chinese medicine, this spice was known as a stimulant and expectorant that helps relieve flatulence and increase libido. Star anise's seeds can also help aid digestion when you chew on them,14 and using star anise in tea can help alleviate certain diseases.15
Growing Star Anise at Home
Star anise plants are usually grown from cuttings or seeds from the spice's segments.16 The plant should be grown outside at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F, since the spice grows best in warm, subtropical climate and in areas where the temperature does not fall below 15 degrees F.
If you grow star anise in these conditions, sow the seeds in pots or plant them directly outside.17 The plant requires dappled shade (shade that you get from trees with sparse leaves or high branches18) and partial sun. However, if you're in an area with cooler climate, place the plant in a warm and sunny location where it won't be exposed to cold and dry winds.19
A 3-inch layer of compost or aged manure on the ground surrounding the tree in the spring is enough — this could serve as your fertilizer. But if you have poor soil quality, apply slow release fertilizer or place all-purpose fertilizer in the spring. The soil should be humus- and compost-rich, with a texture that's both loamy and well-drained. A slightly acidic to neutral soil is considered to be optimal.
Water the plant frequently to keep the soil slightly moist (but lessen the frequency during winter), and ensure that the pot or growing container has drainage holes at the bottom to eliminate excess water.
A star anise tree takes at least six years to grow from seeds, so you might have to wait some time for the plant to fully mature. Star anise seeds are usually picked unripe while they're still green, but are later sun-dried until their color changes to a reddish-brown hue. The seeds can be removed once the pods or fruits are ready for harvesting.
Try These Delicious Recipes With Star Anise
You can find whole or ground star anise all-year round in Asian markets and supermarkets.20 When buying star anise, try to buy whole pieces. Grind it fresh using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle because it can lose its flavor quickly. Keep star anise inside an airtight container in a cool and dark place, where it can keep for a year or more.21
In cooking, star anise is often used to enhance the flavors of duck, eggs, fish, leeks, pears, pork, poultry, pumpkin, shrimp or pastry, although the spice can complement other foods too,22 just like in this Carrot Soup With Star Anise recipe:23
Carrot Soup With Star Anise
- Melt butter in large pot over medium-high heat.
- Add onion, thyme, 3 star anise, bay leaves and garlic. Sauté until softens, about five minutes.
- Add carrots and broth. Bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until carrots are very tender, for about 30 minutes.
- Remove and discard thyme sprigs, star anise and bay leaves.
- Working in small batches, puree soup in blender until very smooth; return to same pot. Season with salt and pepper. This can be made one day ahead. Cool slightly, cover and chill. Rewarm over low heat before continuing.
- Finely grind remaining star anise in spice mill or coffee grinder. Ladle soup into bowls. Sprinkle with ground star anise.
This recipe makes 6 to 8 servings.
As mentioned earlier, star anise tea may help relieve certain illnesses, and if you want to make your own tea, here's what to do:24
Star Anise Tea
- Boil your water and pour it into a teapot.
- Add two star anise seed pods for each cup of water, then allow it to seep for up to 15 minutes.
- Strain the tea into a cup and add some raw honey, stevia or Luo Han to taste.
- Drink after each meal if you are trying to deal with a digestive problem or a cough.
If you don't have this spice at home, but want that strong licorice flavor, use these as star anise substitute/s:25
- Anise seed and a pinch of allspice (one crushed star anise = one-half teaspoon crushed anise seed)
- Chinese five-spice powder that contains star anise
- A few drops of anise extract
Try Star Anise Essential Oil, Too
Star anise seeds can be steam distilled to produce a pale yellow essential oil with an aroma similar to black licorice. Star anise oil's beneficial components are:26
✓ Methyl chavicol
✓ Cinnamyl acetate
It's is known to aid in relieving bronchitis, colds, flu and digestion problems,29 and serve as an excellent treatment for muscular aches and pains, especially among those with rheumatism and joint pain.30
However, the oil should be combined with a carrier oil, such as coconut or olive oil, before massaging into affected areas.31 Prior to using, consult your physician and take an allergen patch test to check for potential allergies. Remember that this essential oil isn't recommended for:32
- Children under 5 years old
- People with sensitive skin33
- Pregnant women
- People with endometriosis or estrogen-dependent cancers like uterine, liver and breast cancers
Don't use the oil if it it's already oxidized or before driving or operating machinery, as this might have a mildly narcotic effect.34