Aniseed, commonly also known as “anise,” “anis,” or “anise seed,” is an herb with a faint licorice taste that is common in Mediterranean cooking. Its formal name is pimpinella anisum, and it is in the biological family Apiaceae — the same family as parsley, dill, coriander, and cumin. Both seed and leaves carry the plant’s distinctive licorice taste, but the seeds are usually the only parts that humans consume. They are often used to flavor baked goods and savory broths; their essential oils are also believed to have some medicinal properties.
The anise plant is an annual plant, which means that it typically survives for just one season — it sprouts in the early spring, is at the height of its seed production in the midsummer, and dies back in the fall. The seeds it drops in the surrounding ground are its primary means of reproduction.
As herbs go, aniseed is often one of the more bushy plants; it commonly grows to at least 3 feet (about 1m) in height and has feathery, dense leaves. In the early summer, these leaves give way to white flowers that will ultimately produce the sought-after seeds. People who cultivate aniseed professionally will often harvest the seeds as soon as they are ripe, though it is also common to wait for them to fall before gathering them up.
Growing Area and Cultivation
The plant is native to the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, including France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey; it is also commonly seen in parts of North Africa. So long as the plant has good soil, regular sun, and a generally constant climate, it can thrive in a range of places and is grown pretty much everywhere in the world today. Many growers even have good luck cultivating it indoors. It is a non-toxic plant, which makes it attractive for gardeners with young children or pets. Dog owners should use a bit of caution, though — dogs often respond to aniseed the way cats do to catnip, that is, by becoming very animated and often hyperactive.
Use in Cooking and Baking
Despite its near worldwide cultivation, anise remains most popular in recipes from the Mediterranean region. It is very common in baked goods such as breads, cakes, and cookies; the slight sweetness of the herb adds a complexity and interesting dimension to otherwise more “ordinary” recipes. Many cooks will also add it to soups, stews, and savory sauces for similar reasons. The herb tends to open when simmered, which can release many of its essential oils. The result is often an intricately flavored meal that does not require much effort on the part of the cook.
Aniseed is also the predominant flavor in a number of Mediterranean liqueurs. The Greek drink ouzo carries its distinctive flavor, as do the Italian Sambuca, the French Pernod, and the Turkish Arak. Most of these are served as cordials and after dinner drinks.
Cooks who do not have ready access to aniseed can often imitate its flavor by using other similarly-flavored substances. Fennel seeds are often the simplest substitution. Fennel is a root vegetable that is widely available in most parts of the world. Like anise, it carries a slight licorice flavor in seeds, leaves, and root. Fennel seeds are not quite the same, but they will impart a similar flavor.
Star anise is another possible substitution. A lot of people confuse aniseed with star anise, but they are in fact quite different plants. The star anise is an evergreen shrub that grows in mainland Asia, particularly China and India. It gets its name from the star-shaped pod in which its seeds grow. The taste of these seeds is very similar to the seeds of the herb, but the two do not really share any biological similarity.
Medicinal and Health Properties
In addition to its use in cooking, aniseed also has a long history as a medicinal herb. The ancient Romans thought the plant promoted better sleep, and the seed is still used in herbal teas for this purpose. The oil and sometimes the seeds have also been used by a variety of cultures to help with digestive problems. This may be part of the reason why drinks like ouzo and sambuca are popularly consumed after large meals.
The herb also has antiparisitic properties, which makes it useful for treating some fungal infections; rubbing the seed’s oils on the scalp may also help ward off lice. The oil can be helpful at relieving nasal congestion and speeding the cure of the common cold, as well.