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I Spice: Star Anise

Star anise fruits hanging from a tree in a Chinese plantation; the dried spice. (photos by Peter Goodman, left, and Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

“Are you cooking with that thing again?” is my husband’s reaction when he smells star anise in the kitchen.

It really is that strong. I love its licorice-like aroma and sweet taste, which is very similar to anise (but the two aren’t related). If you have never seen it, the spice is a dark-brown, pretty and star-shaped -- hence the name. It is most closely associated with Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines; in fact, it is one of the key ingredients of the famous Chinese five-spice powder.

Recipe Included

While it is also associated with Indian food, I never tasted it growing up. I encountered it first only a few years ago, when I was trying to learn to cook Malaysian food. If you enjoy your spirits, you may be familiar with the taste, as star anise is a key ingredient in sambuca, pastis and Pernod.

Corinne Trang, author of "Essentials of Asian Cuisine" (Simon & Schuster, 2003), "The Asian Grill" (Chronicle Books, 2006) and most recently "Noodles Every Day" (Chronicle Books, 2009), recalls her earliest experience using star anise: “Star anise is a spice that I first remember smelling in my mother's hand before she would add it to her braised beef. I loved it because it was pretty to look at. She would instruct me to add it to the pot to flavor to beef broth. She'd always mention how much she loved the flavor of star anise because it would round out the sharp, spicy cinnamon that was also included in the dish.”

Whole star anise is actually dried slices of the star anise fruit, with anywhere from five to 10 points to the star. They can be used whole or ground. Just remember to use the spice sparingly. Use whole or broken pieces to flavor stews, soups, stocks, compotes, jams and desserts, and remove it from the dish before serving. The powder can be used for flavoring dishes with duck, pork or poultry.

Corinne offered this lovely suggestion to gain the maximum flavor from the spice: Combine it with lemon grass and galangal in a light simple syrup to make a sweet broth for drizzling over citrus fruit salad.

I buy it whole, in small quantities, and store it in a glass jar in a dark, cool place. I grind it when I need it as I find the pre-ground spice tends to lose its flavor pretty fast. It is available at most Asian grocery stores and, of course, at Penzeys.

While I think star anise is still reasonably priced here in the United States, apparently this was not so in recent times in China – an extract from star anise is the key ingredient in Tamiflu. Personally, I’d rather try it in Corinne's short ribs recipe, below, Spice-Flavored Poached Cod or maybe in Mulled Red Wine Syrup once the weather turns cool. In fact, you can use star anise in everything from drinks to desserts, its flavor is that versatile.

-- Monica Bhide

Asian-Style Braised Short Ribs
6 to 8 servings

Slightly sweet, these ribs get the full benefit of the flavor of star anise, both whole and ground in the Chinese five-spice powder. Adapted from cookbook author Corinne Trang.

1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup rice vinegar
6 cups low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup fish sauce or soy sauce
4 pounds bone-in short ribs
6 small dried red chili peppers, seeded if desired
10 to 12 cloves garlic (1 head)
6 scallions, trimmed and cut lengthwise in half
4-inch piece peeled ginger root, cut crosswise into very thin slices
2 sticks ground cinnamon
4 pieces whole star anise
2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
Florets from 2 large heads heads broccoli (slightly more than 3/4 pound total)

Combine the sugar and 2 tablespoons of the vinegar in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture caramelizes.

Add the beef broth and the fish sauce or soy sauce, along with the remaining vinegar; stir until the caramelized mixture melts.

Add the short ribs, chili peppers, garlic, scallions, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and five-spice powder. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally, until the short ribs are fork-tender and fall off the bone. Mash the garlic cloves, if desired, and stir them into the braising liquid. Discard the star anise and the bones.

Heat an inch of water in a medium pot over high heat. Once it comes to a boil, add the broccoli florets. Cover and steam for about 5 minutes.

Divide the ribs and broccoli among individual plates, spooning some of the braising liquid over the meat; serve hot.

Per serving (based on 8): 829 calories, 39 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 72 g fat, 30 g saturated fat, 160 mg cholesterol, 318 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  September 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: Monica Bhide, recipes, star anise  
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Thanks for this beautiful piece Monica. Star Anise could be my favorite spice ever. I use it whole to infuse caramel sauces, rub it ground onto pork shoulder with salt & pepper to long braise in wine for the most simple, magnificent roast, use it combined with citrus for beef stews. It's heady perfume always knocks me over.

Posted by: DanaTommasino | September 4, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Many thanks for the post. I have some star anise that I purchased awhile ago to make five spice powder. There it sits, plaintively saying--please use me. I found a recipe for carrot soup flavored with star anise, though haven't tried it yet. I'll give it a go along with the cod recipe.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | September 7, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

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