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July 31, 2008

Star anise (Recipe: Vietnamese pho bo)

Staranise1

What's the difference between star anise and aniseed?

Are they two parts of the same plant?

Is one the seed of the other?

Do they taste alike?

And are they equally effective against the Evil Eye?

Inquiring minds want to know.

First, star anise and aniseed (or anise) are not related botanically. Well, they are, but only very far back in the gene pool; both are in the magnolia class. Star anise (which is, confusingly, sometimes called star aniseed) is the fruit of Illicium verum, native to China. Aniseed (or anise) is the fruit of Pimpinella anisum, native to the eastern Mediterranean.

Second, star anise and aniseed both contain anethole, a chemical compound that accounts for their licorice flavor, but star anise has a stronger and more pungent taste.

In my Asian market, star anise is sold in bags ($1.85 for 12 ounces, last week), so you can see exactly what you're getting. The pod itself is more flavorful and aromatic than the seeds, so don't worry if you open the bag and find many seeds that have been set free from their pods. It's the pods (called schizocarps) you're after.

One of the fundamental components of Chinese five-spice powder, star anise is popular in Chinese "red cooking", where meat (often beef or pork) is turned a deep red-brown color by being braised in a dark soy sauce flavored broth. It's equally delicious in roasted duck or risotto, peach crumble or pea soup, iced tea or ice cream, cookies or chai.

Most often, star anise is added to a recipe whole, to be steeped in liquids and then removed before the conclusion of the recipe. If a recipe calls for ground star anise (and few do, except in baking), grind only what you need. As with most spices, once you grind it, the potency begins to degrade immediately. Stored whole, in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, star anise will keep in your pantry for two years.

And while I don't know for sure about the Evil Eye, I do know that in China some people chew a whole star anise after a meal as a breath sweetener. That doesn't sound evil to me!

Vietnamese pho bo (beef noodle soup)

Nothing reminds me more of our visit to Vietnam than pho (pronounced FUH). On our very first morning in Hanoi, we found a pho stand on the street. Sitting on very tiny plastic stools, we were served a bowl of rice noodles. Then the server poured hot soup over the noodles, and topped it with slices of raw beef. Stirring the beef into the hot broth cooked the beef and sterilized the chopsticks! Each diner then garnished at will from a platter piled high with fresh mung bean sprouts, cilantro, mint and basil. This recipe, inspired by one in The World of Street Food by Troth Wells, serves 6-8.

Ingredients

1-1/2 lbs beef brisket, point cut
2 quarts water
1-inch piece of ginger, sliced
3 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbsp fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 lb flank steak
2 cups pad Thai rice noodles
2-3 scallions, finely sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges

1/2 cup nuoc cham, for dipping

Garnishes:
1 cup fresh mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup fresh spearmint leaves
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn into large shreds (if you have lime basil in your herb garden, use that to add extra lime flavor to your soup)

Directions

To a large stockpot, add the brisket and water. Bring to a boil, then add the ginger, star anise, cloves and cinnamon. Reduce heat to simmer, partially cover the pot, and cook for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is quite tender. Remove the meat and set aside to cool. Skim the top of the beef stock, then strain the stock into a large bowl, and return it to the stockpot. Add the fish sauce, salt and black pepper to taste, stir, and set on the stove on lowest heat. When the meat is cool enough to handle, slice thinly, and set aside.

In the meantime, place the flank steak in the freezer.

In another pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Blanch the rice noodles for 2-3 minutes to soften. Drain, and divide among 6 or 8 individual bowls. Top with some of the sliced cooked brisket.

Remove the flank steak from the freezer (it should be cold, but not frozen solid), and slice into paper-thin slices. Bring the beef stock to a boil, and fill each soup bowl. Divide the flank steak among the individual soup bowls. Sprinkle with chopped scallions, and add a squeeze of lime. Pass the platter with garnishes, so each diner can add his or her own herbs to the soup. Place nuoc cham in small bowls for dipping the meat.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Thai iced tea
Vegetable medley with five-spice dip
Faux pho

Comments

Lydia, can you believe that in less than 2 months I will be able to taste the best Pho in Hanoi again? I can't wait!! but meanwhile I may whip up some pho bo this weekend to satisfy my cravings!

Oh I do love this spice. Although I do not use it often enough, when I do I find it gives the dish a wonderful earthy, sweet bite.

Hmmm...I never knew all that. I don't even think I've cooked with star anise, well, no I take that back I did make homemade Chai once.
But this soup sounds good, not today but for fall; it's a keeper for sure. How well does it freeze?

I love this Lydia - when I cook something with a strong odor (like fish, for instance), I place a large pan over heat and boil some water, then add some star anise and boil them for a while - the wonderful smell takes over the kitchen!

Hi Lydia,

I was so excited to see your post for "Pho". My husband and Mother-in-Law are South Vietnamese and they love Pho. I am anxious to try out your recipe on them!

Thanks much,

Mary (Mary's Nest)

I can't believe I still haven't ever made this, and it's been on my "must try" list forever. This sounds like a great recipe, much easier than some I've seen but still sounds authentic, at least to me. Wish I could go to Vietnam with Anh and have the Pho she recommends.

I bought a bag of these at my Mexican market for $1.00. They've been taunting me from the pantry for weeks! Now I know what to do with them!!! Thank you.

I love your photo of the star anise.

Paz

I have always wondered how to use star anise--thanks! And always looking for a good asian recipe, too.

I bought a bag of these , a month ago, I guess.
And I was wondering what I made with these. You made me a great idea
Thanks

I've had some "evil eye" issues this week, so I'll take all the help I can get!

Thanks for clearing that up, Lydia. I love star anise in Asian soups, so I'm sure this recipe is just delicious.

*finding a place to hide*...I did not know the difference! :O ..though I am quite a user of five spice powder!

Anh, I'm so excited about your trip. I really loved Hanoi, especially the old part of the city, the small shops and markets, and Cha Ca La Vong. Would love to travel there again.

Meeta, star anise is a wonderful addition to all kinds of pastry creams and custards, too.

Dawn, I'd never thought of this soup as warm weather food until I ate it in the place of its birth. Then I realized how light the soup is -- perfect for summer, really. You can freeze the basic broth, and then assemble the soup at another time.

Patricia, what a wonderful tip! I will try that next time we cook fish!

Mary, maybe your mother-in-law will share her recipe with us?

Kalyn, I wish I could go, too. This is a very easy soup to make, and would be perfect with herbs from your garden.

EB, Rebecca, Sylvia: lots of good ideas here -- including Patricia's idea about using star anise to mask unpleasant kitchen odors!

Paz, thank you. I'm trying hard to be a better photographer.

TW, let me know if the star anise works on that.

Susan, I love learning new things about the ingredients in my pantry. There's so much I don't know.

Tigerfish, I love five-spice powder too!

i've never made Pho myself before this this recipe is really useful, the only thing i do best with my star anise is make my own home make 5 spice powder, nothing can beat the homemade stuff.

Pho has been on my list of things to cook for a long, long time. I've been searching for a recipe and I think I've found it here. Thanks for sharing!

Besides using anise in pho and in making our own five spice powder, we also use it in making tea eggs. There's nothing like that star anise aroma, so clean and sweet.

thanks for the pho recipe. I like your substitution suggestion of lime basil. Could you also use lemon mint instead of spearmint?

I love pho although I've never tried making it at home. Eating it at a street stand in Viet Nam sounds like a wonderful experience.

Fabulous photo, Lydia! And I love how packed with information this post is!

Hi Lydia,
It's such a pretty spice. I really should get cracking with the pho bo since it's perfect weather for it right now (it's been the coldest week so far this winter).

On a different note, with the prices of food rising quite dramatically (due to high petrol prices = higher transportation costs. Are you experiencing a similar situation in the US?), many restaurants are turning to cheaper cuts of meat such as brisket and shank. Again, perfect for our current weather. Love it when the meat is just fall- off-the-bone tender.

have a nice weekend,
nora

Kate, homemade five-spice is wonderful because you can tweak the flavor in any direction, just like making your own curry powder or garam masala.

E for KC, hope this recipe is to your taste. There are so many variations, but this one is the taste I love.

Nate, I think lemon mint (lemon balm? or real lemon mint?) would be great in this. Mint tends to be strong, especially right from the garden, so go easy on the quantity. And let me know how it works out!

Julie, all I can say is that those little plastic stools you sit on at the street stalls are really little... at the end of the meal, I wasn't sure I could get up!

Ann, thanks. I'm really trying to make my photos more interesting and informative.

Nora, we too are feeling the effects of higher gas prices. I hope one of the outcomes of this is that restaurants will focus on sourcing more food locally.

I am anti-Pho, though I must admit that yours does seem intriguing with the star anise.

Ack!!! Such an idiot! I didn't kow you could use it whole so have always looked for the powder... Now I'll buy the pods!

Peabody, surely not anti-pho?? It's such a wonderful soup!

Katie, the pods might be even easier to find.

Schizocarps!! That's totally my new favorite word. My old favorite word was Octothorp, the proper name for this # symbol. Apparently it comes from a time when it was used on maps to symbolizes a town (thorp) that was bordered by eight (octo) fields. Now, excuse me while I dash off to learn the etymology of Schizocarps!

I think star anise is one of the prettiest spice in the world ... and your photo certainly do it justice. I never used this spice in my cooking before but I think I will buy it after reading your post! I love vietnamese beef noodles but I have yet to cook it b4... I think I will try it out ;)

Peabody, anti-pho?! *sniff, sniff* :) Maybe when you watch our upcoming Pho video, you'll change your mind. :D
Lydia, I like your "faux pho" term, very ingenius. We just call a quicker version, "fast pho". I like your term better!
We're heading to Hanoi in a few months, can't wait! Thanks for sharing the Pho-love and the beautiful close up pictures.

Great recipe, pho-sure!

thinking of making pho tomorrow - i got my beef bones ready!

i was wondering if you could sub star anise with just anise. i don't know where to find it.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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