The tiny, aromatic, sage green fruits of this Old World herb (Pimpinella anisum) emanated a vaguely dusty, licorice-like scent. Their sweet anthole-based flavor has been confused with that of fennel, star anise, wintergreen, and even dill. Although some native Latin American herbs with similar taste profiles are called yerba anís, true anise (also known as aniseed) is native to the Levant. It was quickly dispersed throughout the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor, and was well established in Greece by the fourth century BCE. In ancient Rome, Pliny observed that “be it green or dried, it is wanted for all conserves and seasonings.”

It was first brought to the Americas as a cultivated herb three centuries ago. Nowadays, it is common flavoring in various anisette spirits in both the New World and the Old. In many countries, it is used as a digestive and as a culinary spice in pastries and sausages. If you have tasted a biscotto in Italy or a sugar-coated saunf dessert seed in India, you have likely tasted true anise.

The popularity of anisettes seems to wrap around the northern Mediterranean shores, ranging from anís and anisette in Andalusia; Pernod in southern France; sambuca in Italy; ouzo in Greece; raki in Turkey, Cypress, and Crete; and arak in Lebanon and Syria. My first taste of arak was offered to me by one of my Lebanese American uncles when I was still a teenager. He prided himself on having worked during Prohibition with the best Lebanese and Syrian American bootleggers, who had maintained a steady stream of the spirit flowing into communities of Middle Eastern immigrants in the United States.

At the same time, he painfully recalled to me that when he was exactly my age, he had been jailed briefly for selling some of his own uncle’s bootleg arak to a plain-clothes policeman! His father and my grandfather had grown up distilling the fermented juices of grapes in the Bekáa Valley and curing their distillate with antiseeds specially gorwn and harvested by Bedouins in the Houran region of Syria. To this day, Syria remains the largest producer of amiseeds in the world, as well as the place where wild anise is most valued.

Although some scholars have argued that most languages spoken in and near Europe share anis as a loan word from either the Latin (anisum) or the Greek (anison), I would argue that its roots are older and in the Semitic languages. The Hebrew anis and the Arabic terms anisun and yansun are less likely to be loan words from Greek or Roman than the other way around. Farsi also uses anisun. In fact, the handful of the world’s languages that do not use a variant of anis imply that anise is a sweet form of fennel, dill, cumin, or star anise. In south-central Asian, a few languages like Sansrit refer to anise descriptively as “a hundred flowers,” but the similarly spelled terms in Thai, Telugu, and Sinhala may also refer to dill.

In the Americas, several wild and semicultivated species are called yerba anís, but they are all botanically unrelated to the Old World anise, which belongs to the parsley family. The herbs most commonly called yerba anís in Mexico are more closely related to Old World tarragon and belong to the genus Tagetes in the aster family. To add to the confusion, the true anise introduced to the Americas by Spanish missionaries has gone feral and naturalized in the desert oases of northwest mexico, where it is typically called yerba anís del monte. In mexico, anise is used in the nonalcoholic beverage atole de anís and in various distilled beverages. Aguardientes flavored with anise are popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world, as are anisette liqueurs, including Cartujo in Venezuela and Anís del Mono in Spain.

Toasted aniseeds are popular among Latin American confectioners, who used them as the signature flavor in the Mexican wedding cookies found in northern Mexico and the US Southwest and in picarones, Peruvian fritters made with pumpkin or sweet potato. The presence of anise in some Spanish and Latin American desserts may hark all the way back to the arrival of Phoenician, Arab, and Berber recipes on the Iberian Peninsula a dozen centuries ago and are now thought of as Spanish. In the remote desert oasis of San Borja in Baja California, Mexico, I once found true anise being grown and used in much the same ways as it has been in the desert oases of Arabia and North Africa since antiquity. Like the flavor of dates, the flavor of anise is a signature taste of the desert oasis wherever that oasis may be. 

Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encycolopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Image Credit: By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press