Sunday, October 30, 2011

Star Anise vs. Anise...

(Star anise)
In the world of natural herbs and spices, I would say a fairly common question would probably be, "Are Anise and Star Anise the same thing, or are they related?"  The answer to both questions is 'no'.  Although they have similar liquorice-esque aromas, they are not related. Not only are the plants different in appearance, they are native to completely different parts of the world.  I shall explain...

Star Anise is an herb most know on sight for it's unique appearance.  Also known as Illicium Verum, Star Anise is comprised of 8 to 10 carpals (seed pods) from 1 to 3 centimeters long.  Its most commonly seen in its dried form which has a rough, brown appearance on the outside.  Inside, are shiny seeds of light brown to bronze.  The pods radiate from a central stalk creating its star-like design.
(Star anise plant)
Native to china and Vietnam, the Star Anise plant is an evergreen tree that is related to the Magnolia family.  The trees can grow anywhere from 26 to 40 feet tall.  Leathery "lanceolate" leaves (lance shaped leaves that are longer than they are wide) cover it, and its' flowers are greenish-yellow, or reddish-purple.  It begins to produce its small compound fruit after 15 years, and yields 3 annual harvests (the fruit is harvested just before it ripens and is dried). Difficult to cultivate, and rife with transplant problems, Star Anise is grown pretty much exclusively in China, Indo-China, and Japan.
(Left: star anise; Right: anise)
Anise (also known as pimpinella anisum) is an annual herb that is native to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  It produces oval, slightly curved seeds, that are in individual pods.  Anise is a plant that reaches 2 to 3 feet in height, and has parsley like lower leaves, and lacy upper leaves.  Its flowers are white and umbrella shaped.  Anise is grown in the U.S. as an alternative to fennel. Anise plants have a taproot, so like star anise it is hard to transplant successfully once matured.

(Pot of melon and star anise jam.)
Now to the culinary side of star anise.  It is said that it was first brought to Europe in dried form by an English sailor.  There seems to be a difference of opinion on when...some say the 16th Century, and others the 17th Century. After its European introduction, star anise was soon used to flavor syrups, jams, and puddings.

A popular spice with the Chinese, it is one of the spices in the popular Chinese '5-Spice Powder' which is comprised of Cinnamon, Fennel Seeds, Sichauan Peppercorns, Cloves, and Star Anise powder.  In the East, they use Star Anise in confectioneries, and meat dishes (pork and duck mainly).

The Mandarins chew on the whole dried fruit as a post-prandial (state of drowsiness , and relaxation after a meal) digestive, and a breath sweetener.  Star anise is also used to combat rheumatism and colic, and is a common flavoring in medicinal teas, pastilles, and cough mixes.
(Left: Anisette; Right: Absinthe)
Anise (also known as 'aniseed') is used in the production of two liqours, one a bit controversial.  The first of the two, and the one devoid of controversy, is Anisette.  Just as the name denotes, the main flavoring of Anisette is anise. Produced in the west, it is popular mainly in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In France, a similar liquor called Pastis is also popular, and is flavored with anise and liqourice.  In Italy, they produce a similar beverage known as Sambuca.

("The Absinthe Drinker" by Pablo Picasso)
The other more controversial of anise flavored beverages is Absinthe.  Made from herbs that include the flowers and leaves of Grande Wormwood, sweet Fennel, and green anise, Absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchatel in Switzerland.  Popular belief is that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a Frenchman living in Switzerland, created it as an all-purpose remedy in the late 1700's.  Absinthe's popularity grew in the mid-1800's when french troops were given it as a malaria treatment.  They brought their taste for it back with them, and it quickly became popular in bars and bistros. It gained quite a lot of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France, mainly from its close association to Bohemian culture.  It was a favorite of artists and writers.  Classified as a "spirit" due to it's high alcohol content, Absinthe was mainly consumed after being diluted with water.  Now for the controversy...present in very small quantities in absinthe, a chemical called Thujone was blamed for causing psychedelic effects.  Absinthe was portrayed as an addictive psychoactive drug, and was banned by the US and most Europeans countries by the year 1915.  It would eventually be discovered that the levels of Thujone in absinthe could not have the effects the drink was accused of causing, and that it had no more effect on drinkers than ordinary spirits.  Not until the early 1990's would Absinthe see its revival.  Many European countries reauthorized the sale of the anise flavored drink, and today nearly 200 brands are produced in a dozen countries.

(Group of Japanese women burning incense.)
As for metaphysical uses, all of the following relates to star anise, not just for its aroma but for its unique star shape.  It is a mystical herb and great component to any conjure/mojo bag.  Star anise is said to ward off the 'evel eye'; bring good luck in money and love matters; give clarity to health matters in the form of visions.  Place the whole dried pods near your bed for protection, purification, and to prevent nightmares.  The powdered bark of the tree is used in incense of Japanese temples, and the trees are planted around temples and on graves for consecration and protection.  It is revered by Buddhist monks and grown near their temples.  Burn the seeds and/or wear them as beads to increase psychic powers.  Placing a dish of the dried pods on an altar can give it power.  Also putting a dried pod to each of the four directions can give power.
(In terms of the "four directions", they can vary depending on pagan leanings, preferences, etc., and are all up for interpretation.  Here are some directional basics:  North (Earth); East (Fire); South (Air); West (Water).)

(Sixth Chakra, a.k.a. '3rd Eye Chakra')
Star anise is associated with the 6th ('3rd Eye') Chakra, which is located at the center of the forehead.  This Chakra influences our intuition, insight, clairvoyance, imagination, and perception.

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