Anise, or aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) is a plant native to the Middle East. Both plant and seeds have been used medicinally since prehistoric times, and their use has been dated to 1500 B.C., in Egypt. The Romans used aniseed as a carminative (a digestive aid that relieves flatulence), to ward off epileptic attacks, insomnia, and nightmares, and to freshen their breath. Because of its exceptional medicinal value, laws mandating its cultivation were in force in Charlemagne’s kingdom and the Virginia Colony. King Edward I kept the London Bridge in repair with taxes on aniseed.

There is contemporary evidence that aniseed contains a phytoestrogen called anethole, which protects against brain function disorders as well as breast, bowel, prostate and other cancers, cardiovascular disease, menopause symptoms, and osteoporosis. Anethole also contains expectorant properties, and aniseed is a common ingredient in cough syrups and lozenges.

In aromatherapy, aniseed oil is used to help with anxiety and depression, and as an anti-spasmodic (a few seeds taken with water are said to stop hiccups), diuretic, and laxative. Combined with eucalyptus oil, it also makes a good chest rub, and serves as a remedy against lice and scabies.Aniseed’s longstanding popularity as an ingredient in Middle Eastern liqueurs – Turkish raki, Greek ouzo, Arab arrak,Egyptian kibib – attest to its efficacy as a digestive aid. In some parts of the Middle East, Europe, and India, it ischewed after meals. The French also use aniseed, in the well-known cordial called pastis, and in Pernod and Ricard. In Thailand the seeds are brewed in tea. Italians often use aniseed in baked goods such as biscotti, and in Sambucco, a licorice-flavored liqueur.

The anise plant is an annual propagated by seed in early spring. It should be planted in light, loamy soil, in a sunny but sheltered area. It does not transplant well, nor thrive in pots. The plant grows up to two feet tall, with broad, serrated lower leaves. The upper leaves are smaller, divided and narrow. Flowers are small and whitish, and grow in umbrels (similar to those of its cousins: dill, fennel, coriander, cumin, and caraway). The anise plant needs a long, hot summer to produce seeds, which are harvested as they change to grey-green. Flower stems are cut and hung upside down in a dry place, and the seeds collected as they fall. The seeds are oval-shaped, brownish or gray-green, and striated, and have a sweet, licorice taste. They lose their flavor quickly, and should be kept out of light and ground as needed.

Anise is often confused with fennel (which, to add to the confusion, is sometimes called ‘sweet anise’ in recipes). Any ‘sweet anise’ recipe that instructs in the preparation of a bulb is actually referring to fennel. Nor should ‘star anise,’ a frequent ingredient of Chinese recipes, be confused with aniseed, though aniseed may be substituted for the more difficult-to-find star anise.

You may need to experiment with new recipes to use aniseed in your kitchen, but this spice’s delicious, mildly licorice flavor makes that well worth the effort, and makes aniseed very palatable for medicinal use as well.

More in this category: « Receptors and Ligands