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Star anise

"illicium verum - true allurement"

Well as to my translation above - a - more poetic translation might be 'truly alluring' - I'm not sure that allurement is really a word. And it should be noted that illicium comes from the latin illicio which means entice or seduce, from which I guess the English word illicit comes - taking it one step further into almost criminality. Maybe we should go for seductive which sort of contains all those shades of meaning. Because yes it is seductive, both in form, taste and smell. And a star is a truly poetic thing.

A star of a spice. So I shall litter this post with pretty pictures of it. Well a couple anyway.

Actually what gave me this particular idea was a pretty picture - in this case of pear beignets in a star anise sabayon sauce from that very old Gourmet Traveller magazine I wrote about the other day. I was intrigued by the notion of pear beignets, and it just looked so beautiful. But not much to say about it really, so I slotted it away for an oddment post some time. You can't find the recipe online, but basically it's poached pears, which are then drained and dipped a in a yeasty beer batter, deep fried and served in a sabayon which has been flavoured with star anise. Pears apparently go particularly well with star anise.

So the pear beignets lingered in my notebook until I came across Belinda Jefferey's Braised star anise chicken that I featured the other day. It's so elegant somehow and the taste would be so - Chinese? So star anise migrated to potential post status, until today when I have nothing else on my mind.

I think I first tasted star anise long ago in the 80s in Adelaide, when a friend served a dish of stir-fried prawns that had a star anise flavour. I was enamoured and immediately went out and bought some. Since then it's a spice that I always have in my pantry, but which I don't really use enough, considering my love of the aniseed flavour.

Interestingly though it is not related to aniseed, chervil, fennel or liquorice - or even tarragon, those other aniseed toned flavourings. They do however, have in common, anethol - the chemical that provides the aniseed flavour. Star anise is related to the magnolias, the others to the umbilliferae which include parsley, celery carrot and a whole lot of other wispy flowering plants. Star anise - illicium verum - is a small tree, with rather lovely flowers that eventually become star shaped pods with each lobe of the star containing polished brown seed. There is also a Japanese star anise tree but don't eat that - it's highly toxic.

The star anise we use is native to the area of south-west China and north-east Vietnam and has been grown for some 4000 years. Now it is popular everywhere in South East Asia, except, according to Charmaine Solomon, in Thailand. Which is a little odd. It was brought to England way back in 1588 by Sir Thomas Cavendish, and doubtless used in all the various highly spiced foods that were prevalent at the time.

The other interesting thing I learnt about the plant was that it also contains something called shikimic acid which has been used to make Tamiflu - an anti-flu drug - somehow using e-coli in the processing, which seems somewhat counterintuitive to me. The Chinese of course have used it in their medical treatments for centuries, - flatulence and libido were two things I seem to remember from the semi-learned articles I read.

The two most well-known uses of star anise in Asian food is in the Chinese five spice powder and also in pho - the ubiquitous Vietnamese soup. So it was interesting to see that when Luke Nguyen did his French journey for SBS he devised this rather lovely looking French onion pho soup of which he says:

"Here I have taken two of the best-loved classic soups of both France and Vietnam and combined them. This is not fusion cooking — history and culture made it happen." Luke Nguyen

Which doesn't quite make sense, because what is fusion cooking if not a combination of history and culture. Anyway it's an interesting idea and perhaps worth trying one day.

So what else can you do with it? Well I was going to do my usual thing and give you lots of recipes, which you (and I) will probably never make - although we can always dream - and I did start to do this with these two: Sweet duck legs cooked with plums and star anise from Jamie and Blackberry, star anise and rosé sangria from Coles

But then I realised that there were really so many recipes out there it would be hard to choose. They range from ice-cream to pot roasts with everything, including lots of drinks, in between.

The most common drink is flavoured tea - which is what the Indians mostly do with it. This example here is 4 cups boiled water, 2 teabags (black or green tea), 2 cinnamon sticks, 6 star anise and 2 teaspoons of honey; but doubtless there are endless versions of this out there because chai masala has become a very trendy drink.

Then has over five hundred recipes that include star anise. Some more interesting than others of course but a good starting point.

I also found this summary list from Taste:

  • For an aromatic salt to sprinkle over roast chicken, use a mortar and pestle to grind a star anise with 1/4 cup of sea salt.

  • Poach stone fruit in sugar syrup with star anise and cinnamon.

  • Give beef casserole an Asian twist with star anise and strips of orange rind.

  • Slowly roast chicken pieces in soy sauce, star anise and honey until the sauce is thick and sticky.

The River Cottage people make a Seville Orange marmalade flavoured with cloves (24) and star anise (6) to 1kg oranges. I might try that. My neighbour is going to give me a few Seville oranges when they are ripe, so I shall be making marmalade soon. It sort of sounds dubious but as it will only be a small batch I think it might be worth trying. If it doesn't work then nothing is lost really.

And Heston Blumenthal is a fan:

"What particularly appeals to me about star anise is the way it helps intensify meatiness in a dish. If you've ever wondered why humble Chinese spare ribs taste so meaty, even though they don't actually carry much meat ...

I prefer to combine star anise with lightly caramelised onions, and use this as the basis for a meat braise or sauce. The combination produces sulphur compounds that bring out the meat notes of a dish. As a rule of thumb, half a star anise to one large onion is about right. Thinly slice the onion and brown it gently with the spice in butter, oil or fat; it's vital to get some caramelisation on the onions. Then add any other ingredients before putting in the meat." Heston Blumenthal

So in spite of it having a very distinctive taste, it seems to be incredibly versatile so next time you make a stir fry why don't you start by throwing in one or two star anise for a slightly different flavour? Not too much - it's one of those spices for which a little goes a long way. Then maybe poach some pears, and have a cup of chai tea, although that won't be me because I don't like tea. I could try the sangria though.



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