Star anise is one of the ingredients in the Chinese five-spice powder. It is the dried star-shaped fruit pods of the mid-sized evergreen Illicium verum tree. The tree belongs to the Schisandraceae family. Star anise differs from anise (Pimpinella anisum) from the parsley family (Apiaceae). The tree is a native of Southwest China and Northeast Vietnam. It is also found in Arunachal Pradesh in India, Laos, the Philippines, and Jamaica. Both star anise and anise yield anethole, an essential oil. Both spices are used to flavor drinks and confectionery.
The tree is not found in the wild now. It prefers woodlands and a bit of shade and tolerates low temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius. According to kew.org, the plant has been under cultivation since 2000 BC. It probably existed in the wild across the Southeast Asian region.
The tree bears scented flowers and is of ornamental quality too. The wood is fragrant and is used in construction and furniture making. The tree is cultivated as an intercrop with mandarin orange or tea. It is also cultivated in pure stands. It is a preferred agroforestry species for plant growers as it gives them a reasonable rate of return.
The Chinese star anise should be distinguished from the Japanese star anise, a different species—Illicium anisatum. The Japanese species is highly toxic. Sometimes Chinese star anise tea products are adulterated with Japanese star anise and are unsafe for human health. Once in powder form, it is difficult to tell the difference by just looking at them. The toxicity of the Japanese star anise is due to the presence of sikimitoxin.
The spice was used as a carminative for infants. After several infants in Spain were observed to suffer serious gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms, the causes sought to be examined. It was suspected that this was a case of adulteration. Fernandez et al. studied 23 instances. The study confirmed that these symptoms were due to the contamination of Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) with the toxic Japanese star anise—Illicium anisatum (Fernandez et al., 2002). The neurotoxicity symptom in infants caused by the harmful effect of Illicium anisatum was further confirmed by a study conducted by Ludlow et al. (2004).
The US FDA in 2003 issued an advisory regarding the consumption of tea made with this spice. Tea contaminated with the Japanese anise is suspected of causing neurological symptoms. However, the spice has been given the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) certificate by the US FDA. Some believe these spicy teas are beneficial and may help with indigestion, but others associate it with seizures, vomiting, and agitative behavior.
Whole Chinese star anise is used in cuisine, soups, and teas in China and Southeast Asia. It is also used to flavor baked dishes. It gives a licorice flavor to cuisine and is a popular pork and poultry food spice. It is used both as a whole and in the ground form.
Thai iced tea brewed from black tea is often flavored with this spice’s powder, cinnamon, licorice, vanilla, and orange flowers. In India, the spice is sometimes added as an ingredient of garam masala, a spice mix used across South Asia, Persia, and Indonesia.
The spice is not related to the common anise Anisum vulgare. The species was first introduced in Europe in the 16th century. Both Chinese star anise and regular anise seed contain the compound anethole, giving the two species a nearly identical flavor, which is strong, sweet, and smells like licorice. In Europe and the US, spice flavors fruit compotes, jams, and liqueurs. This spice’s flavor resembles fennel and basil and is used as a substitute for anise.
In Europe and the US, spice flavors fruit compotes, jams, and liqueurs. This spice’s flavor resembles fennel and basil and is used as a substitute for anise.
Most of the spice is produced from trees growing in the Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan. In Guangxi province, it is estimated that 350,000 hectares of farmland are devoted to star anise tree farming. The annual production from this area has been put at 80,000 metric tons.
More on star anise and other Chinese herbs here.