Tall order for harvesters of nature’s gift to China
January 11, 2019
Everlasting Flavors is a series profiling the condiments, sauces and spices that define Chinese cooking.
Chinese star anise is a spice that couldn’t be more common in Chinese cooking. But in October last year it doubled in price.
It’s common to see price rises at this time, but such a high markup was rare. The reasons behind it include a decrease in production and resellers who had stored tens of tons of the spice to wait for the price to skyrocket.
At present, 500 grams of star anise costs more than 20 yuan (US$2.9). The price may go even higher as the Spring Festival draws near.
However, people seldom notice the change in price as the spice is not consumed in large quantities on a daily basis.
Chinese star anise is nature’s gift to China. The plant native to southwest China is widely used in cooking across the country, and it’s not limited to specific cuisine: from the Shanghainese hongshaorou (pork belly braised in brown sauce) to Sichuan-style spicy hotpot and Cantonese lou mei (dishes braised in master stock).
Although huixiang means fennel in literal translation, it’s also a quite common name for star anise. The spice is known as bajiao huixiang in many places.
Star anise is the key ingredient in the famous Chinese compound spices such as five-spice powder and thirteen-spice powder.
The spice is also widely used in making toothpaste, soap, perfume and cosmetics. The shikimic acid extracted from star anise is used in the pharmaceutical industry.
In traditional Chinese medicine, star anise is known as warm in property and acrid in taste, the functions of which include tonifying yang and dispelling cold as well as regulating qito alleviate pain.
But not every kind of star anise is edible. The Japanese star anise (llicium anisatum) looks like the regular star anise but it’s inedible and highly toxic, and can cause neurological harm and seizures.
There are several tips when distinguishing toxic star anise: Edible star anise have a smoother shape and exposed seeds, they usually have eight even tips and the flavor is spiced yet sweet.
The inedible star anise have 11 to 14 pointed tips and the seeds are not well exposed, the taste is pungent and numbing.
Star anise production
China exports more than 80 percent of star anise in the global market. Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is the No. 1 production area and produces about 85 percent of star anise in China.
Yunnan Province is the second largest star anise production region in China.
It is one of the most common items in the Chinese pantry but not many people know how the spice is harvested and processed.
The humble star anise grows on skyscraping trees, and people must climb 10 to 15 meters to the top to pick the fruits while the tree waggles, a very dangerous job to get the tiny spice.
The star anise must be boiled first and then spread on the ground to be exposed to the sun. That’s when the magic happens: As the star anise oil starts to condense, the star anise become sweeter and sweeter. The color of the star anise turns dark brown from the original green.
Star anise should be stored in dry, sealed containers, and they can last a very long time.
Cooking with star anise
Chinese people make a lot of soups and stews in winter, and many dishes cannot succeed without star anise.
The richer meats such as pork ribs, pig trotters and duck are suited for slow-cooking, and adding a couple of star anise at the beginning of the process can greatly elevate the flavor of the proteins.
In braised dishes, the simple ingredients of star anise, soy sauce, salt and sugar are very basic yet effective seasonings.
The spice can also be used in salads, where a special and more fragrant dressing can be achieved by taking an extra step of frying the star anise with ginger, scallion and peppercorn in the oil, then using the spiced oil as a base.
You can make your own spiced oil by simmering star anise and Sichuan peppercorns in oils such as olive oil or corn oil. The key is not overcooking or burning the spices, and the finished result can be used in cooking directly.
When marinating or brining food, using star anise in the stock can boost the flavor and add some natural sweetness. You can make your own compound spice for braising and stewing meat. A simple spice cocktail is star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, bay leaf, cinnamon and dried chili.
In vegetarian dishes such as braised potato, carrot and mushroom, saute a couple of star anise in hot oil with scallion and ginger before stewing the vegetables can make the dishes smell and taste more meat-like.
Lu Xun, one of the greatest Chinese writers of the 20th century, published a short story titled “Kong Yiji” in 1919, and one of the things that made a profound impression was the huixaingdou Kong ordered at the tavern in Luzhen to accompany warm yellow wine.
That was the star anise flavored fava beans, a traditional snack in Shaoxing. It’s cheap, flavorful and chewy, and the sweet and spiced flavor is addictive.
Similar dishes include spice boiled peanuts and green soy beans, which have a softer or crunchier texture but the same strong star anise aroma.
Because star anise packs such strong flavors, a little goes a long way. A couple of whole star anise are sufficient to make a pot of stewed meat or vegetables.
For the purpose of traditional Chinese food therapy, some people would drink star anise tea. It’s made by brewing the dried star anise fruits in boiling water, then seasoning with honey.
Star anise can also be used in cooking sweet dishes. A popular recipe is banana jam with star anise and brown sugar which can be used to spread on bread. The star anise is used to season the jam during the boiling process and boost the flavor. The combination is similar to cinnamon with apple.
You can also try putting a star anise on top of hot chocolate for some extra flavor.
To prevent insects in flour or rice especially in the summer season, adding star anise can help keep the bugs away because of the strong fragrance of its oil.