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Star Anise: A Dominant Chinese Spice

by Irving Beilin Chang

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 9 and 10

Star anise,one of the most dominant spices in Chinese cooking, is the flower of a small evergreen of the magnolia family. Its botanical name is Illicium verum. A great many of these particular evergreens grow in the south western provinces of China, and they are not to be confused with their Japanese relatives called shikimi. The latter’s botanical name is Illicium anisatum and the Chinese call that plant the ‘mad herb.' Shikimi is used in many Buddhist ceremonies throughout Asia. There are many reports that consider the Japanese variety ‘slightly poisonous’ but there are none that deem Chinese star anise a problem.

Believed domesticated in south China and later in southeast Asia, one of the earliest records of this spice appears during the Tang Dynasty (608 - 906 CE) in medical journals. It is discussed as an herb. While its Chinese name is hui xiang, it is more commonly known as ba jiao hui. The latter words mean eight-spiked hui. In the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), this seasoning item was mentioned as ‘tribute levied for the emperor.' Later, one reads about it as 'Siberian anise' or 'Siberian cardamon.'

Technically a fruit, it is picked green and dried in the sun, often attached to the branch or twig it grew on. Drying it this way, it turns reddish brown. Overall, this fruit has a very unique shape. There are eight carpels or seed pods growing a center, and it looks like a symmetrical eight-pointed star. Each of these carpels houses one seed. The sample that we have at home shows most specimens to be well formed stars. A few are not so well formed, that is their stars have some well formed carpels and a few juvenile ones, as well. It is the carpels that give off the strongest pungent sweet licorice flavor characteristic of the star anise aroma. In cooking, depending on your taste, use either the whole star or just a few carpels. Too much makes star anise over-powering and it can give the dish it is used in a bitter after taste.

The quality of star anise produced in China is considered the best. Japanese and Vietnamese star anise fruits are often inferior in quality because they do not have the strong aroma that Chinese star anise has.

This aromatic seasoning item that first made its way to Europe in the hands of an English sailor near the end of the 1500's is available worldwide in all Asian groceries stores. To maintain its flavor, we recommend it be stored in an air-tight glass bottle.

Besides its use in flavoring food, star anise is also used in the canning and other industries as a food preservative. In addition, steam distillation of this spice produces an oil used in anise-flavored drinks and other commercial preparations. For the technocrats, essence of star anise’s chemical composition is anethole 85-90% with the balance being a-pinene, philandrene, p-cynene, 1,4-cineol, limonene and d-turpenol. This complex-sounding oil is used in Chinese herbal medicine as a carminative, a diuretic, and sometimes to relieve constipation and flatulence. In Chinese traditional herbal medicine, oil of the star anise is used to relieve pain and provide vigor. In one Chinese reference, a formula is described where an ounce of star anise and half an ounce of fennel is heated with a cup of coarse salt. While hot, this mixture is wrapped in a towel and pressed to the stomach or back where pain due to gas in the bowels or other symptoms prevail. It is said to do a good job relieving that discomfort. In another volume, they recommend chewing the seeds to aid in digestion.

Ginger and star anise are often used together in food preparations. They are said to reduce the ‘cold’ nature of the food. When cooking game such as pheasant, duck, rabbit or quail, this ginger-star anise combination does a good job to flavor, blend, and enhance the unique taste of the main course. In addition, this combo masks some of the strong, wild, and undesirable tastes associated with game.

In home cooking, we often use the combination of ginger and star anise to prepare red-cooked beef, chicken, or duck. When preparing Shanghai smoked fish or other smoked meats, it is often the main spice. Even when pork feet, pork hock, or stomach is prepared, star anise adds special aroma and flavor to these dishes. Keep in mind that star anise is a very strong spice. Therefore, when cooking a whole chicken, only a few carpels are needed to flavor the entire dish.

The most well known and commonly used spice powder in Chinese cooking is called ‘Five Spice Powder.’ This combination of flavorings, spices all, is used in many meat and some vegetarian recipes. The ground mixture is usually made up of star anise, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cloves, and fennel; with star anise the dominant flavor. There are many packaged sauces and pouches that are popular with Chinese food connoisseurs and with ordinary Chinese-Americans, too. A lot of people prefer to buy the packaged ready-made spice combinations. They either do not have the time or the expertise to blend their own mixtures from scratch.

Star anise has been an important ingredient in many blends and sauces, as it is in many of the above. Curry, a very popular spice mixture, is used in most of Southeast Asia. As a blend of many spices, its dominant color is yellow, contributed by turmeric. Star anise is often one of its components.

Below are four recipes that use star anise as a main flavoring spice.
Soy Sauce Chicken I
1 slice ginger one-half inch thick, about the size of a quarter
1 or 2 scallions
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
1 or one and a half whole star anise
1 and 1/2 cups thin soy sauce
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry sherry or rice wine
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 to 3 pounds chicken
spray of cilantro, optional
1. Clean chicken and dry it with paper towels.
2. Place ginger, scallions, Sichuan pepper and star anise in a piece of cheese cloth and tie it with a string making it into a pouch.
3. Mix soy sauce, chicken broth, sherry and sugar in a five-quart sauce pan and add the spice pouch. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower heat and simmer for fifteen minutes.
4.Turn the heat to high and add the chicken. When the pot boils, lower the heat, cover the pan tightly, and simmer five minutes per pound of chicken. Turn off the heat and leave ingredients including the chicken in the sauce pan for twenty minutes, do not open the lid during this period.
5. Remove the chicken to a dish and allow it to cool. Then cut it into bite-size pieces. Pour a little sauce over the chicken, add a sprig of cilantro for color., and serve warm or cold.
Note: The remaining sauce may be reused many times.
Red-cooked Duck
2 Tablespoons corn or another vegetable oil
3 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic 3 to 4 pound duck
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
4 to 6 whole cloves garlic
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Clean duck and remove the fat from its cavity. Dry with paper towels, then cut into bite-size pieces.
2. Smash garlic with side of cleaver and remove its peel or skin.
3. Heat vegetable oil in a deep wok, add ginger and garlic, stir for half a minute, then add the duck and keep stirring this for three minutes before adding the soy sauce, sherry, sugar, garlic cloves, star anise, salt, and two cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat and simmer for ninety minutes or until the duck is tender. Serve hot.
Beef Tongue, Chinese Style
4 to 5 pound fresh beef tongue (not a pickled one)
1/2 cup thin soy sauce
2 star anise
1 Tablespoon sugar
3 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1. In a Dutch oven or a pot with a tight-fitting lid, pour in enough water to cover the tongue, then bring the contents to a boil. After fifteen minutes, remove tongue and cool in cold water. Trim gristle and bone from large end and skin the tongue. Discard both the skin and the water.
2. Place tongue, soy sauce, star anise, sugar and sherry in a large pot or Dutch oven. Bring this to a boil, cover it, and simmer for three hours or until the tongue can be easily punctured using a chopstick. Add water when and as needed, and adjust the salt taste, adding more, if necessary.
3. Cool, then slice the tongue. It can be served hot or cold.
Spiced Squab
3 squab
1 cup chicken broth
dash of ground Sichuan pepper
1 star anise
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon sherry
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1. Clean, wash and drain each squab.
2. Pour chicken broth into a three-quart sauce pan and add the spices, dry sherry, soy sauce, and sugar, and mix well.
3. Place squabs in the sauce pan with the spice mixture. Heat it to a boil; cover and simmer until the liquid has nearly all evaporated, about twenty minutes or so, and do add more water, if necessary.
4. Using a brush, paint sesame oil over the squab and serve.

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