Star Anise (Illicium verum) is related to Magnolia and the name comes from the Latin word illicere, meaning to allure. Which it does – it’s so attractive.
The spice we buy is the sun-dried fruit, an 8-pointed star with seeds, all of which we use. It has similarities to liquorice, anise and fennel, but it is stronger, sweeter and warmer. Use it sparingly, a little goes a long way, particularly if it is ground.
Star Anise is native to south-western China and north-eastern Vietnam. Today, it is also cultivated in other East and Southeast Asian countries, such as Korea, Japan and Cambodia. As well as Chinese dishes, it is used in Malaysian cooking and in the popular Vietnamese beef and noodle pho. The Chinese took it to India where it often flavours garam masala and chai tea.
Usually, we associate Star Anise with Chinese cooking, especially the spice blend Chinese 5-spice. It’s important in Chinese red cooking, a long, slow cooking method, especially for beef and chicken, with dark soy sauce. And it also goes well with duck and pork.
Star Anise is lovely in sweet dishes and that is how we tend to use it in Europe. Ground, it’s added to biscuits and cakes, delicious! Simmer in water to extract the flavour for amazing fruit compotes, jams and fruit punches. It can be used with rhubarb, apricots, cherries, apple (try it in a crumble). Also blackberries, plums or pears and sweet tropical fruits such as pineapple. Star Anise is also great for adding more flavour to chocolate recipes, such as brownies. Yum!
For savoury dishes, don’t restrict Star Anise to Chinese recipes. It really brings out the sweetness of leeks, sweet potato, squash and fennel. And it adds loads of flavour to meat. Try a whole star anise in your next stew, its touch of acidity will really bring the flavours out. But it’s also subtle with fish, so use it in a fish stock and seafood dishes as well as with chicken.
Marbled eggs are a treat at Chinese New Year, or for a picnic or snack and uses star anise and tea. This is a really easy recipe and fun to try with kids. It’s quite exciting to see how the eggs have been decorated at the end.
6 large eggs, at room temperature
150ml soy sauce
3 star anise
2 tbsp black tea (lapsang souchong for a smokey flavour)
1 tsp caster sugar
Heat a pan of water to the boil and gently add the eggs. Simmer for 9 minutes. Drain the water and then cool the eggs under the cold water tap until cool enough to handle.
Gently tap each egg with the back of a teaspoon, but don’t remove the shell.
Put the other ingredients into the pan with fresh water, stir and then add the cooked eggs with the cracked shells. Make sure the eggs are covered with the water and simmer gently for 1 hour.
Turn off the heat and leave the eggs to cool in the liquid. Transfer to the fridge when cool and leave for several hours for the pattern to form. Remove the shells and be amazed!