Star Anise

Although star anise (Illicium verum) contains the same sweetly warm, aromatic oils that true anise does, just about everything else about this eastern Asian spice could not be more distinctive from its western Asian analog. Its mahogany-colored pods, shaped like eight-pointed stars, are harvested from an evergreen tree before they reach full maturity. The essential oils that carry the flavors of anise, citrus, clove, pepper, and cassia for which star anise is known are found in the dried pulp of the pods’ pericarp rather than in the seeds.

Native to the southwestern China and the northeast Vietnam, though no longer found there in a truly wild state, this tree is now cultivated throughout southern China, Laos, Cambodia, India, and the Philippines, and as far from its natal grounds as Jamaica. The only populations outside of human management today are feral remnants of abandoned orchards. Some sources suggest that the cultivation of star anise in southern China dates back at least three millennia.

Throughout its range of cultivation in Asia, star anise is a key ingredient in making some of the world’s most distinctive spice composites. In China, it is typically blended with ginger, cassia cinnamon, Sichuan or wuxiangfen, an aromatic blend characteristically used in marinades for rich meat dishes such as Peking duck. Star anise also finds its way into garam masala, the Persian-influenced seasoning used in the Mogul cuisines of northern India in sauces or marinades for meat and poultry. For this blend, it is usually combined with true cinnamon, fennel, cardamom, cloves, coriander, pepper, nutmeg, and bay. In southern Thailand, star anise adds a pleasant sweetness to iced tea.

Its name in both Mandarin (bajiao) and Catonese (baat gok) refers to its eight-cornered star shape, but other, more descriptive terms in various Chinese dialects liken its flavor to that of fennel. Not surprisingly, as star anise was carried westward, most cultures created syllogisms that most widely in other languages is badijian, its Farsi name: badyani in badjans in Latvian, badane in French, badian in German, and even badian anise in English. The similarity of these terms likely reflects the key roles that Farsi-speaking Sogdians and Persians played in moving Chinese spices along the Silk Road to their ultimate consumption and delight in Europe and elsewhere.       

Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” Accessed May 8, 2013.
Image Credit: By Daniel -, CC BY-SA 2.0,
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press