Star anise, botanical name Illicium verum, is a spice whose flavour is very akin to anise. This spice is acquired from the pericarp of an evergreen tree that is native to southwest China and northeast Vietnam. The fruits of this medium sized herb are star-shaped and they are collected just prior to becoming mature.
A well accepted spice, star anise is distinct for its typical star-shaped look. It is generally used in the form of a culinary spice in several regions of Asia as well as some regions of Eurasia. People often confuse this spice for aniseed (botanical name Pimpinella anisum), as the aroma and flavour of both these spices are somewhat similar.
In fact, the confusion is more if one is using the powdered form of either spice, because grounded star anise no longer has its distinct shape. Star anise is definitely an Asian spice, but sometimes also used in European cuisines as a substitute for the more common aniseed.
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In fact, star anise possesses numerous therapeutic properties and is particularly used extensively in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In addition, star anise is an extremely versatile spice that is often used in Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean and sometimes also in Indian dishes.
The star anise plant grows up to a medium height and it is usually an evergreen bush that has a preference for growing in shaded areas. It also thrives well in places receiving moderate sunlight. This herb is indigenous to Vietnam and China, however, now the species is also found growing in Korea, Japan, Malaysia and India.
Similar to genuine aniseed, the spice is also obtained from the fruit of the star anise plant. The pericarp of this herb has a prominently star shape and after harvesting the seeds are dried out for use as spice or to prepare various remedies. However, different from the true anise, the leaves, bark as well as the roots of the star anise plant do not have any therapeutic attributes or applications.
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In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a tea prepared with star anise is generally given to people suffering from common colds, coughs as well as flu. Star aniseed is generally considered to be a warming spice that promotes blood circulation and prevents cold-stagnation, particularly aiming the middle jiao area (the body area comprising the mid-section, including the spleen, stomach, gall bladder and liver) of the body.
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You may also use star anise tea to treat various health problems suffered by women, for instance, menstrual cramps, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) and irregular or delayed menstrual periods. Diluted infusions and mild decoctions prepared with star anise may also be used to treat gas, bloating, diarrhea, and colic.
Moderate doses of infusion or decoction prepared with star aniseed may be given in the form of a galactagogue (a medication that induces breast milk secretion) mainly because the herb contains traces of estrogenic compounds that may aid in promoting breast milk production in nursing mothers.
The extract obtained from shikimic acid, an active compound present in star anise, is actually the predecessor of the contemporary anti-influenza medications. As star anise encloses very high amounts of this shikimic acid, presently it is the main source for industrial production of shikmic acid, notwithstanding its bioavailability in almost all places.
This chemical compound is used in the form of a raw material for producing anti-influenza drugs, which are available under several brand names in the market today. As this compound is widely used by the pharmaceutical industry, the major portion of star anise cultivated in China is generally employed in the form of raw materials for drug production. Only a very small amount of star anise from China is used for other purposes.
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In folk remedy, a tea prepared from star anise has been traditionally used for treating rheumatism, while some people also occasionally chew these seeds after their meals with a few to facilitate digestion. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is known to be a warm as well as moving herb and, hence, used to aid alleviation of cold-stagnation in the middle jiao segment.
A similar tree, the Japanese star anise (botanical name Illicium anisatum) is known to be extremely poisonous and not fit for consumption. Often the use of Japanese star anise tea is said to have resulted in some severe neurological problems like seizures. In fact, it has been found that Japanese star anise encloses a compound called anisatin, which is responsible for serious inflammation of the digestive organs, urinary tract and even the kidneys.
It has also been found that very potent neurotoxins like anisatin, pseudoanisatin, and neoanisatin, are responsible for the noxiousness caused by consumption of Illicium anisatum, which is also referred to as Shikimi. These potent neurotoxins are known to work as non-competitive antagonists of the receptors of gamma-amino butyric acid, a neurotransmitter, also known as GABA.
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Star anise has a number of culinary uses. Star anise encloses a chemical compound called anethole, an element that is responsible for the different flavour of this herb. In recent times, people in the West have been using star anise as a cheap replacement for anise and also for manufacturing liquor, especially for producing the liquor called Galliano.
In addition, star anise is also used for producing pastis, sambuca, and several other forms of absinthe. Star anise is also used to add essence to meat preparations. It is also used in the form of a spice in preparing masala chai and biryani, a popular dish in the Indian sub-continent.
This herb is also used extensively in Chinese cuisines as well as in Indian dishes, where it forms a main constituent of a mixed spice called 'garam masala.' In fact, star anise is also widely used in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines.
In China, neighbouring India and other Asian countries, star anise is cultivated extensively for commercial uses. In Chinese cooking, star anise forms an ingredient of the traditionally used five-spice powder. In addition, this herb also forms a vital ingredient for making the Vietnamese noodle soup called phỏ.
Star anise is propagated from its seeds, which should ideally be sown in early April in an arid, light soil when the weather is sunny and warm. Preferably, the seeds are sowed outdoors in the permanent place of the plants. When the seedlings emerge, they need to be thinned, removing the weak and unhealthy plants.
Also ensure that they are clear from weeds. Grow the young plants at least at intervals of one foot. Alternately, you may also sow the seeds in pots/ containers when the weather is hot and shifted to a warm place during May.
The plants begin to produce flowers as early as July and, in case the season is warm, the fruits begin to ripe in autumn. When the fruits are ripened, the plants are cut and threshed to obtain the star anise seeds.
Chemical analysis of star anise seed has revealed that it may have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-yeast activities. Many people use this seed to cure flu, as it is known to be an excellent resource of shikimic acid, which is employed for manufacturing oseltamivir (Tamiflu), a medication for flu. Nevertheless, thus far there is no scientific evidence that shows that this herb is effective in combating viruses like the virus responsible for flu.
Following distillation, anise fruits yield anything between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent of aromatic, sweet, unstable oil, which comprises approximately 90 percent of anethole. In fact, anethole is the main aromatic element of the essential oil contained by star aniseed. This oil has a potently anise smell and when cooled, it separates to form gleaming crystalline scales. The star anise fruit also encloses a fixed oil, mucilage, sugar and choline.
It is safe to use star anise for flavouring foods. However, a number of elements contained in star anise may cause side effects like scaling, swelling and even blisters when it is applied topically to skin.
It is important to ensure that you are using unadulterated Chinese star aniseed and not Japanese star aniseed. In fact, Japanese star aniseed is considered to be poisonous.
Star anise is not fit for use in infants, giving them to babies may prove to be unsafe. In fact, it is very difficult to ensure that the star anise product you are using only comprises pure Chinese star anise seeds, and is not adulterated with the toxic Japanese variety.
It has been found that a number of infants who are administered tea prepared with star anise experience adverse effects like vomiting, irritability and seizures. It is assumed that such side effects are a result of using star anise products that may possibly have been adulterated with Illicium anisatum, the poisonous Japanese star anise.
Therefore, it is advisable that you should never give star anise tea to children unless you are certain that the product has not been adulterated with the Japanese star anise. At the same time, it is worth mentioning here that sufficient information regarding the safety of using star anise products in older children is not available yet.
People enduring conditions that are hormone-sensitive, for instance, uterine cancer, uterine fibroids, breast cancer, ovarian cancer or endometriosis should never use star anise or products containing this herb. This is because star anise may possibly work in as estrogen in such conditions. As we are aware such hormone-sensitive conditions are worsened when people suffering from them are exposed to estrogen.