Although it is considered relatively a late-comer to official Chinese medicine (appeared in 16th Century), Star Anise has been a part of herbal medicine history for centuries in the folk tradition. Native to China, Vietnam and India, it has been used abundantly throughout history in Asia in the form of cooking, and is a part of many traditional dishes such as the Chinese five-spice blend, the broth of Vietnamese Pho, pastis, sambuca, and other forms of absinthe, as well as masala chai and biryani of India. One of the things I love about herbal medicine is that, the more you learn about plants, the more folklore and old culinary traditions make sense. I am always awed when I look at an old folk recipe and I realize how sophisticated of a formulary they were.
The abundance of food we have today and our modern medical perspective has caused a major shift in our relationship to food and nature. However, we must remember that once upon a time, food was medicine. There was a reason behind everything that was called for in a recipe. Star Anise appears in the culinary tradition often as a spice cooked with meats and cooked in some form of salty flavor. It turns out, the ancient people knew cooking this herb with salt allows the energy to enter into the kidney meridian more readily where it is said to balance the kidney yang deficiency.
Star anise goes great with fruits like apples and oranges. Hot apple cider becomes uplifting with the power of star anise.
Historically it is famous for helping digestive upsets, which makes sense for cooking with rich foods. It is known to be particularly great with flatulence and gas pain. It has been used for its powerful upper respiratory, anti-inflammatory properties for flu-like symptoms. In fact one of its constituents is used to create a drug called Tamiflu and that is where much of the Chinese grown herb goes. It is also a powerful infection fighter, and has been used to manage rheumatoid arthritis pain, back pain and hernia and menstrual issues. Today, researchers have found that it can kill cancer cells in a lab setting.
In my work so far, I have seen Star Anise work on a mean hangover, and I like to put it in my after-thanksgiving-dinner digestive tea which works like a charm. Although it is traditionally supposed to be decocted for medicine, I like to make cold infusions and let it sit over night, just to enjoy it as a refreshing tea, which can also be used as a mouthwash and even a facial toner. I also throw olive leaves in there for taste and it is divine. If you are on the go, just pop a piece of the pod in your mouth to freshen your breath.
In Asian cuisines, star anise is often cooked with meat for reducing meat smell and adding an appetizing aroma.
The aroma is calming, uplifting, and promotes mental stillness. The star-like shape is an indicator that it has an affinity to the cosmos. In flower essence form, some say it is similar to Sugilite crystal in that it promotes a higher connection with the cosmos, and can aid in spiritual protection as well as defense against psychic attacks, so it can be carried around for protection, and burned for meditation too. If there is this much and a lot more in this one little herb, imagine what you already have in your kitchen!
*It is important to note that here we are speaking of the Chinese variety, Illicium verum, which is very safe and can be used with children as well as to support lactation. On the other hand, the Japanese variety, Illicium anisatum, is toxic, and can cause liver damage if ingested.
Reported by Maya Robinson
Maya Robinson is a Brooklyn-based writer, coordinator, herbalist, and founder of Rooted Things.