If you've never seen star anise or seen it but had absolutely no idea what it's purpose was on planet Earth, you're not alone. And if you've gone the extra mile and bought it to then relegate it to the back of beyond in your spice cabinet, you are definitely not alone.
I was in all of those camps at some point or another and now i'm here to tell you, this star-shaped spice is totally worth getting obsessed with.
Let's start with the basics.
Star anise, native to southern China and northern Vietnam, is a mahogany coloured, 8 pointed star-shaped fruit of an evergreen plant with a fancy name even my Biologist brain is most definitely going to forget - Illicium verum. This magical fruit, and the seeds contained within each of its arms, has a licorice and anise-like flavour but is totally unrelated to the fennel - anise we know in the West. It tastes like a mixture of fennel, clove and a little pepper with some sweetness thrown in - suffice to say, it has a rich, complex flavour that works wonderfully with meat dishes, in broths, poached fruit, mulled wine (mmmm) and in my daily morning ritual, masala chai! It's commonly used in its whole, dried form and sometimes ground. In fact, it is an integral part of Chinese Five Spice powder, which, if you've ever had pork or poultry Chinese style, have likely tried.
Not surprisingly, this ancient spice has been revered for its medicinal qualities and modern science's verdict for the most part is "yep, once again, Gram was right'!
Traditionally, star anise was used to boost digestion, balance female hormones to regulate menstruation and lactation, treat colds, coughs and the flu and to enhance blood circulation. Science has tested some of these claims to provide evidence for the following health benefits of this beautiful spice:
Star anise contains a compound called shikimic acid. I was frankly blown away to learn that this very molecule is the starting point in the synthesis of the world's best known anti-viral drug, Tamiflu! Before we get too excited, it's important to note that shikimic acid alone doesn't have much anti-viral activity but when combined with quercetin, a compound found in the outer layers of red onions and other vegetables, it has robust anti-viral effects. Fennel and ginger also contain some shikimic acid.
Anethole has anti-cancer activity against multiple cancer cells in a test tube setting, especially in breast and prostate cancer. Linalool, another bioactive compound in star anise, may also boost cancer-specific immune function, allowing the body to get rid of tumour cells. Animal and human studies remain to be conducted.
4) Estrogenic activity
Anethole has been shown to have estrogen-like activity, explaining the historical use of star anise to enhance lactation, regulate menstruation and treat infertility. In excess, estrogenic activity could be detrimental to the body so my advice is to stick to star anise in food-appropriate quantities rather than in medicinal amounts.
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT CAUTIONARY NOTE
Ancient wisdom prescribed the use of star anise as a digestive aid although scientific evidence for this effect is currently slim to none. Star anise tea has been given to infants for colic with seriously adverse and toxic side effects causing the FDA to issue a warning about the use of such teas in babies and children. The toxic effects are likely due to the contamination of Chinese star anise with the Japanese variety which is toxic and not meant to consumed as food (but rather, burnt as incense!). For flavour and benefits, buy whole star anise from a reputable brand and use it in food and drink-appropriate amounts rather than in highly concentrated, pre-prepared teas and concoctions.
On that note, let's get cooking!
Toddlers, Kids, Adults
It was during my first trip to Vietnam in 2014 that I saw star anise in all its glory, proudly displayed in restaurants, at pho street carts and local spice markets. Star anise is the distinctly Vietnamese aromatic that makes the classic noodle soup dish known as pho what it is (pronounced "fuh" like "huh"). I have modified the classic to make a kid-friendly version that's also perfect for the family table.
As mentioned above, shikimic acid from star anise is the starting material for the pharmaceutical industry's most successful anti-viral drug, Tamiflu. Shikimic acid when combined with the natural compound quercetin is a potent anti-viral. I took star anise and ginger as sources of shikimic acid and combined them with red onions that are a rich source of quercetin to make a chicken broth for our pho that is an anti-viral powerhouse and delicious to boot.
2 adult and 2 toddler servings
NOTE: Quercetin is a beneficial compound found in the outer layers of red onion. When peeling, try not to remove any layers beyond the thin skin!
250 g (about 1/2 lb chicken), preferably thigh or leg on bone
1 medium red onion, quartered
1 inch ginger root thinly sliced
2 star anise
1/2 teaspoon white coriander seeds (optional)
8 cups water
4 fistfulls rice or buckwheat noodles
1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
salt to taste
1 tablespoon freshly chopped cilantro (optional)
1 lime quartered (optional)
In a small skillet or non-stick pan, dry roast the star anise and coriander for 30-60 seconds on medium heat until aromatic but not burnt.
Place the spices, chicken, onion, ginger, and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium for a gentle simmer. Skim the foam as it arises checking every 20 minutes for more foam. Allow the broth to simmer for 1 hour.
Once the broth has been simmering for 50 minutes, remove the chicken pieces using tongs. Shred the meat off the bone and set aside.
Cook the noodles in salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.
Add the fish sauce to the broth and salt to taste. Strain the broth into a fresh pot.
Ladle the broth into serving bowls. Add noodles and some chicken. Serve with lime and cilantro on the side and steamed broccoli for the perfect, balanced toddler and family meal.