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Star anise (Recipe: Thai iced tea)


To celebrate Ted's sixtieth birthday, I sent quart-size mason jars to friends and family, and asked each person to fill his or her jar with sixty somethings for Ted. A few weeks later, the jars (more than thirty of them) started arriving in the mail, no two filled with the same thing.

Marbles ("to replace the ones you're losing"). Miniature soccer balls.  Beach shells. A list of the Oscar-winning movies for each year of his life. Sixty photos of Ted through the years. Caramels (didn't last long). Bolts and screws ("replacement parts"). Toy soldiers. Mosaic tiles. Palindromes.

My own jar held sixty unbroken, unblemished, perfect star anise. For the man who keeps the spice in my life.

Star anise, one of the fundamental components of Chinese five-spice powder, is the fruit of an evergreen magnolia tree, native to China; it's also cultivated in India, Japan and the Philippines. The tree fruits in its sixth year, and can continue to bear fruit for up to a century. Fruit is picked unripe, and dried in the sun. The Chinese names for star anise -- ba jiao in Mandarin, bat gok in Cantonese -- both mean "eight corners", a reference to the eight canoe-shaped carpels on each fruit. (Sometimes you find a pod with six carpels, or twelve. I think of them as lucky, like a four-leaf clover.)

Star anise has a sweet and pungent and fennel-like flavor; when you taste it, your tongue might tingle a bit. It's a powerful spice, so use little bits at a time. If a recipe calls for ground star anise, do it yourself, grinding just as much as you need. As with most spices, once you grind it, the potency begins to degrade immediately.

In my Asian market, star anise is sold in bags ($4 per pound, more or less), so you can see exactly what you're getting. The pod itself is more flavorful and aromatic than the seeds, so don't worry too much if you open the bag and find many seeds that have been set free from their pods. It's the pods you're after.

Star anise is fundamental to the style of Chinese cuisine known as "red cooking", where meat (often chicken, duck or pork) or vegetables are turned a deep red-brown color by being braised in a soy-sauce flavored broth. You'll often find a star anise in pho, the famous Vietnamese soup, and in some Indian dishes as well. In Western cooking, you'll use star anise in recipes for cake and in the poaching liquid for fruit.

By the way, if you do a search online for star anise, you'll get as many results for healing, spirituality, and wicca as you do for culinary uses, though I did find a recipe for unicorn milk. Seems that, in addition to adding authenticity to your cooking, star anise also enhances your psychic powers, and brings good luck.

Thai iced tea

Who could resist this refreshing drink? The recipe is adapted from Aliza Green's Field Guide to Herbs & Spices. Serves 6.


1 star anise
1 tsp orange blossom water
1 vanilla bean
Pinch each of ground clove and ground cinnamon
1/2 cup Chinese black tea leaves
1 cup sugar
Few drops red food coloring (optional)
Half-and-half or sweetened condensed milk


Bring 1/2 gallon of cold water to a boil in a saucepan. Add star anise, orange blossom water, vanilla bean, clove, cinnamon, and black tea. Boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and food coloring (optional, but traditional). Cover, and steep until the tea is tepid. Fill tall glasses at least halfway with crushed ice. Strain the tea and pour over the ice. Top each glass with half-and-half or sweetened condensed milk.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Vegetable medley with five-spice dip
Green chicken curry with eggplant

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Wonderful idea.


This is such a nice idea... I have never thought of star anise and orange blossom together... Must be lovely.

What a clever idea! I love star anise. Not only does it give a fabulous taste to food, it's so pretty. The tea recipe looks to be quite nice!

What a fun idea! And wonderful that so many partcisipated. I think it would have been as much fun to fill the jars as to receive them... 60 palindromes? I'm impressed with that one!
I like start anise, but have to admit (head hanging in shame) that I have ground in my pantry.... I'll do better next time!

The birthday idea was *so* adorable! Your own jar sounds like the very sweetest. Star anise is such a gorgeous spice. I know that some of the spice mixtures in my pantry have this spice, but I have never attempted to use it whole :( Your iced tea sounds like the perfect start! :)

Aii, this shouldn't put tears in my eyes, but it does! (It must be the star anise ...)

Happy Birthday Ted!

That's a great idea to get family to interact for a special occassion :) and star anise is a lovely choice, great tea too :)

I love star anise. I'm trying to convince my hubby that he likes it too. How sweet what you did for Ted's birthday!

I love the birthday idea. He's lucky to have you and it sounds like you feel lucky to have him too! So perfect when it works out that way.

I thought I was tres clever when I sent scrapbook pages to friends and family for a memory book for my mother's 80th birthday, but this jar idea is GENIUS. Did most people re-use the shipping carton you sent it in? I got great response with my scrapbook pages because I included stamped, adressed return envelopes.

What a sweet gift for your spicy guy!

What whimsical birthday gifts- Happy Birthday Ted! Unicorn milk... I want some I think and I definitely want some of this tea.

What an extraordinary idea for a 60th birthday party, Lydia! I especially love the marbles and the star anise. Especially perfect because I always think star anise are so romantic looking. I love to poach pears with them -- they look lovely floating in the syrup.

It was a very cool birthday surprise. The idea and the execution were wonderfully creative. And the party was fabulous. I have the jars on a bookshelf and it's fun to look at them everyone once in a while; especially the one containing star anise with its card.

One palindrome I especially remember - the Canadian palindrome " He did, eh?"


Lydia, that jar idea is soooo original and terrific. I am sooo going to copy that for a friend's birthday. Thanks for the wonderful idea!

Star anise is a wonderful spice, and overlooked. I had a nasty experience once as a child and bit into it (mom forgot to remove it from the dish). Anyway, I got over it quickly :-)

Paz, thanks!

Anh, it's not unlike orange and cinnamon -- a wonderful pairing.

Sher, I think star anise is beautiful, too.

Katie, when you get some whole star anise and compare the flavor to the ground stuff, you'll know why I'm recommending that you grind your own. But please keep using what you have -- just increase the amount called fr in the recipe as the spice gets older, to make up for the loss of potency.

Nupur, I think there are some wonderful curries that use star anise, though I don't have any recipes. If you do, please share or post a link to your site.

Alanna, sweet, eh?

Kelly-Jane, feel free to use this idea for someone's birthday. It was such fun to orchestrate it for Ted and to see how creative people were with it.

Veron, best to add it to a few things your hubby already might like (like beef stew); it will add an undefinable taste and maybe he'll go for it.

Kalyn, I am a lucky girl indeed.

Casey, I love the scrapbook idea! How many pages did you have in the book? Yes, most people used the boxes I sent the jars in, and some brought the jars in person to a little birthday dinner I'd arranged.

Karen, you betcha.

Callipygia, I'd drink anything that would give me psychic powers, I think.

Christine, I love using star anise in poaching liquid, too -- and then as a garnish on the plate to add a bit of loveliness.

Rupert, you are the spiciest guy I know.

Nora, please use this idea or any variation on it. As you can see, Ted loved it, and the jars are a source of endless pleasure on a shelf in our bookcase. Oooh, the thought of biting into a star anise -- well, I can see where you might want to avoid them after that!

very cute idea... and i'll scour my asian market next time, because star anise in bulk at my co-op is much more than 4$!

This sounds like a great recipe for Thai iced tea. I have been meaning to try and make it for a while and now I have a great excuse to do so!

This is such an interesting post - of course, intuitively it makes sense that star anise is a dried product, but I'd never really thought about how it was harvested.

you have the chinese names mixed up, it's ba jiao in mandarin

Connie, star anise is easy to find in the wonderful Asian markets around Boston and Cambridge.

Andy, I know it sounds strange, but the food coloring really makes it look like the Thai iced tea you get in restaurants.

TW, I love the thought that the trees can live for a hundred years, too.

Anon, thank you so much for the catch -- I've made the correction.

I love anise, they look elegant and add so much flavor.

What a brilliant idea. Such clever gifts your friends came up with too.

Star anise is my preferred flavouring for fruit spreads that I make - I dont remove it after cooking because it looks so pretty :)!! I love the flavour when it forms the core of a truffle too. star anise with orange blossom sounds delightful.

Kelly, I agree.

Barbara, thanks -- we do have clever friends.

Lakshmi, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. What kinds of flavors do you pair with star anise in your fruit spreads? I think it's such an unusual spice. And I love the idea of anise-flavored truffles.

Ahhhh, such a good feeling for the romance still being alive in your relationship! I love it. It truly was a "feel good moment" when I read what your gift was. Do you think all foodies are romantic? We put such effort into the passion of cooking and trying to make all happy, that I feel like it goes hand-in hand.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TED...I thik the stars blessed you in having such a lovely lady in your life!


About adding it to different things, i remember cinammon and star anise combination does not seem to bother the hubby. I emailed Harold McGee about it, and he does not know about cinammon but he does know that there is a study of an anise-like molecule in star anise that reacts with onion that creates a new aroma compound with a meaty quality. Because onions are rich in sulfur compounds (and garlic and meat)...a longer cooking time will give a chance for this reaction to take place and dampen the effect of star anise.So your suggestion of beef stew is right on!

Hmm, sounds really refreshing Lydia!

Pam, I don't know whether all food people are romantics, but I'm guessing many romantics are food people!

Veron, fascinating.... I had no idea about the symbiosis between onions and star anise. Thank you for getting to the science behind this, and special thanks to Harold McGee, too.

Valentina, it is!

I don't keep star anise in my pantry but I do have five spice powder that contains star anise as one of the ingredients. Yes indeed, this is a nice spice to have in some chinese braised dishes and slow-cooking too :)

This looks delicious, Lydia. I'm a big tea fan, but have never infused it with star anise (or any other spice for that matter). Can't wait to try this.

Love this tea, but always find it a "little" too sweet. Half and half is the perfect solution. Thanks for the recipe. I've seen some mixes around, but there's nothing like freshly brewed.

Best wishes to Ted. Everyone should have a milestone birthday so clever, sweet and memorable.

Tigerfish, star anise gives five-spice its mystery. I've never tried red-cooked dishes at home, and I need to start looking for some recipes to try. Can you recommend a few good dishes?

Brys, Thai iced tea is one of my husband's favorites. It's a bit sweet for me, but I cut back on the condensed milk. (I do like it red, though!)

Susan, I agree -- sometimes too sweet for me. And as for the birthdays, well, they should all be memorable!

That is just too clever an idea not to use, Lydia. My Dad's 70th is approaching, so I'll have to tell my mom about your idea. Happy birthday Ted! As for star anise, it's so aromatic and flavorful, just delicious in so many dishes, most especially your tea. I am definitely making that!

Susan, I do hope you use this idea or some variation -- it was a wonderful treat for Ted and really brought out the creativity in our friends and family (it was one of my sisters-in-law who managed the 60 photos of Ted through the years!). Each of the jars reflected some aspect of my husband's creative, recreational and intellectual interests, as well as the personality of the gift giver. Of course, the older the birthday boy, the more things to cram into those jars -- but it just wouldn't be fun for a young child anyway.

That's such a neat idea! I'm going to have to borrow it. ;) Being a Shanghai native, red cooking is my favorite way to braise.

Amy, please do borrow it -- it was such fun. And if you have a good recipe for red-cooked meat, please share!

Such a great idea and what fun things you received back.

Thanks! I have a bag of this, and I had NO idea what to do with it. Came across it while we were moving, and decided to google it. Up came your site, and I'm looking forward to trying this and more recipes. Also, I can totally relate to the pantry that's overly full. At least I'm not the only one. :)

Kim, you're definitely not the only one with a full pantry (is there such a thing as too full? I'm not sure!). Use the search box at the top of this page to find more recipes that use star anise.

I don't understand why you are making a very simple Thai iced tea to some thing so dificult to create. This is absolutely not a art creation. Here is so easy, buy Thai tea leaf from any Asian grocery story or order it from [email protected]. they have thai tea leaf in filter tea bag as well as tea powder. With thai tea leaf,your drink will have the authentic thai tea aroma not immitation.

This a great idea, although I must admit, I'm not too well familiar with any Thai tea, but as a tea lover like you, this is something that I should try. Looks refreshing enough to make me wanna make for myself, thanks for giving us the recipe.

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