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Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) is a flowering plant native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia and tastes a little like liquorice, tarragon and fennel – all mixed together. Star aniseis the fruit of a small evergreen tree native to southwest China but now cultivated in Japan and Southeast Asia.
Botanically, the plants are entirely different, though – aniseed is a member of the parsley family and anethole (made from the seeds of both plants, to a lesser degree the star anise) is the oil that accounts for the sweet licorice taste but star anise belongs to the magnolia family.
Both the leaves and the seeds taste similar and are used in savory and sweet foods in Europe and the Middle East, in spicy and seafood dishes in India and in a host of Southeast Asian food.
In France it’s used for pastis and in Greece ouzo – it is also chewed after meals in some Middle Eastern countries and India to sweeten the breath. Star anise are small star-shaped fruit with (usually) eight points and with a seed in each of the points and the pod can be used whole as a flavoring or the seeds can be used, alone, for flavoring – it is the dominant flavor in Chinese five-spice powder.
Used in Asia to flavor pork and chicken and also in teas, it has,with the advent of fusion food, spread around the globe like a wildfire. As in aniseed, the flavor comes mainly from the anethole oil but is more more bitter than the aniseed.
The important thing is to look at the recipe and then decide whether you want to use whole aniseed, ground aniseed, anise extract, anethole oil, star anise, ground star anise or the liqueurs made from an anise derivative,
Anise has been cultivated in Egypt for over 4,000 years and the first reference was found on an Egyptian papyrus and in the Hammurabi texts that date back to around 2000 BC give or take a decade or two – through the ages there were a myriad of uses for it, some follow below:
- According to some pharaonic medical texts, the seeds were used as a diuretics, for toothaches and for digestive problems.
- Famous doctors of old, like Hippocrates and Dioscorides recommended it for their patients, the former prescribed it to clear the respiratory system and the latter (in the 1st century AD) believed it would “warm, dry and dissolve”.
- In Biblical times, anise was so valuable that it was even used to pay taxes and for tithes – evidence of this is found in the gospels of Luke and Mark (there are those that believe the word “anise” found in Matthew actually refers to “dill” – again, much is lost in translation.
- Pliny recommended chewing it first thing in the morning to get rid of “morning breath” and, for good measure, wrote that it was advisable to keep some next to the bed to stave off bad dreams.
- The Romans, cleverly, made spicy sweet cakes stuffed with anise to be served after dinner so that their guests didn’t suffer from indigestion or other associated discomforts
- In the Middle Ages anise was used with honey and vinegar to gargle in the treatment of tonsillitis.
- The Romans used it as a form of currency.
- Charlemagne, in the 9th century decreed that anise be grown on all imperial farms.
- Albertus Magnus who lived in the 12th century also praised anise fervently.
- In the 16th century, Europeans discovered mice were attracted to anise and baited their traps with it.
- Germans, concerned about their health as much in the 18 century as they are today, often flavored their bread with whole aniseed and to this day, rye bread is commonly flavored with whole aniseed.
Despite being cultivated for at least 2,000 years, there has been very little development of improved varieties.
CHEERS! TYPES OF ANISE LIQUOR
Aniseed is used in the production of a host of drinks, notably:
Absinthe – French
Aguardiente – Colombian
Anisette – French
Anís – Peruvian
Arak – Arabian
Chartreuse – French (yes, it’s one of the secret ingredients!)
Jägermeister – German
Mastika – Eastern European
Ouzo – Greek
Pastis – French
Raki – Turkish
Sambuca – Italian
TYPES OF FOOD USING ANISEED
The seeds are classically used in well known foods like:
British aniseed balls,
Greek stuffed vine leaves, dolma
German pfeffernusse and springerle
Mexican atole de anís or champurrado (a type of hot chocolate)
New Zealand aniseed wheels
Nigerian tom-tom sweets
Star anise tastes similar to anise and is made from the star-shaped pericarp of the Illicium verum, a small native evergreen tree of southwest China and a member of the Magnolia family.
The fruits are harvested just before they ripen and are widely used in Chinese cuisine, in Indian cuisine (it’s an important ingredient in garam masala) and in Malay/Indonesian cuisine. In China, India and most other Asian countries the spice is widely grown for commercial use. Star anise is used in cooking, for alcoholic drinks like Pernod and in medicines – like Tamiflu.
Beware of the Japanese star anise – it’s not edible. Star anise is one of the ingredients in the Chinese five-spice powder, in pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup and in the preparation of Biryani in Andhra Pradesh – a state in southern India