Star anise is the fruit of a small evergreen tree (Illicium verum) native to China. The tree produces small yellow flowers, thick green leaves and the familiar star-shaped fruit. This fruit, which is shaped like an eight-pointed star, also contains hard, shiny seeds that have a potent licorice- or anise-like flavor. The flavor of both anise and star anise come from the same chemical compound, known as anethol, although the two plants are not botanically related. Because of its strong flavor, star anise is most commonly used as a culinary spice. However, the fruit also has several medicinal properties, and it can be used for a variety of purposes.
1. Use star anise in cooking. Add the whole seed pod to soups, stews, marinades, barbecues and roasts that have a long cooking time. The longer the herb is cooked, the stronger and more intense the flavor. It works well with poultry, roast pork, braised meats and fish. If you’re unsure how to use star anise in these dishes, simply add it to the other ingredients and discard it before you serve the dish. It pairs especially well with other spices such as cinnamon, ginger, curry powder, black pepper and soy sauce. Use it anywhere you might use these spices in cooking, substituting half or all of them for star anise, or look for specific recipes that call for the spice.
2. Use star anise to relieve colds and the flu. In east Asia, people often use star anise in homemade natural remedies for treating colds and the flu, especially when respiratory symptoms and sore throat are present. It’s also a primary ingredient in the antiviral drug, Tamiflu, which speaks volumes about its effectiveness for this purpose. Make a tea from star anise by steeping a whole pod in 1 cup very hot water for 10 to 15 minutes, straining, sweetening with honey and sipping slowly. Drink up to three cups a day. You can also steep star anise in warm milk, discard, add a bit of sugar and cinnamon, and drink as needed.
3. Use star anise to relieve digestive ailments. Another traditional medicinal use of star anise is the treatment of upset stomach, poor digestion, diarrhea, nausea and other digestive ailments. The seeds can be chewed after meals to help improve digestion, or you can drink a tea made according to the directions above and sip as needed when an upset stomach occurs. In addition, chewing the seeds also results in a sweetened breath, which may be helpful after eating a spice-laden dinner.
4. Use star anise in homemade potpourris and natural cosmetics. In addition to its potent taste, star anise also has a powerful and pleasant aroma. It’s often used to scent natural cosmetics such as lotions, soaps and face powders. The dried seed pod can be added to homemade potpourris and powdered star anise can be used to add a bit of fragrance to homemade soaps and cosmetics of all kinds.
5. Use star anise to improve appetite. Star anise is often used to help improve the appetite, particularly when the lack is caused by illness. Simply sip some star anise tea or chew the seeds prior to meals. The herb stimulates the digestive enzymes, which increases the body’s desire to eat.
You can find star anise in Asian food markets and if you’re lucky, in the spice aisle of well-stocked supermarkets. It’s typically available as whole seed pods or in ground, powdered form. If you find it whole, you can take it home and grind it yourself by placing it in a plastic bag and crushing with a rolling pin or hammer, or placing it in a food grinder and processing until you reach the desired consistency.
Caryn Windfield is the owner of The Modern Herbal, a resource for information on alternative medicine topics. Learn more about star anise and healing your mind, body and spirit with herbs, essential oils and natural remedies.