Know Your Ingredients: Star Anise

star anise pod in a spoon


In the Western world, star anise is associated with holiday favorites like spiced cookies, mulled wine, and wassail. But did you know that the ingredient is an integral part of Asian cuisine year-round? Native to northern Vietnam and southern China, star anise is most widely cultivated in South and Southeast Asian countries like India, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Today, we’re seeing it pop up in the specialty-coffee world in a number of ways. Read on to learn more about this whimsical and flavorful spice’s origins, cultural significance, and role in today’s coffee industry.

Star anise seed pod, an eight-pointed star shape.
Star anise is native to northern Vietnam and southern China. Photo by Mae Mu via Unsplash.

What Is Star Anise?

Small, hard, and dark brown in color, star anise is a seed pod used as a spice, and it gets its name from its unique star shape. With its warm, sweet, and slightly spicy flavor, the ingredient is commonly used in ways similar to nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. In South Asian traditions, star anise is often used to spice chai. It’s also an integral flavor in Vietnamese pho, Chinese barbecue pork, and is one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder—a pillar of Asian cooking.

A drink with cinnamon stick on top and floating star pod.
With its sweet, spicy, and warming flavors, star anise is a go-to for winter food and beverage. Photo by Gaby Dyson via Unsplash.

Traveling from East to West

Though star anise has roots in Asia, it’s commonly seen in Western cuisine. The popular English holiday beverage wassail makes use of the ingredient along with flavors of orange, cinnamon, and apple. But how did the ingredient make its journey from east to west?

While star anise’s presence in Asia can be traced back over 3,000 years, historians pinpoint its arrival to Europe to the 1500s. English sailors brought it along the tea routes that spanned from China through Russia. From then on, the Western world would incorporate it into jams, syrups, baked goods, and more.

various spices in a bowl.
The spices used in Thank You Coffee’s five-spice latte, inspired by Chinese five-spice powder. Photo courtesy of Thank You Coffee.

Star Anise Vs. Anise Seed

Star anise is commonly confused with anise seed. Though both spices have a licorice-like flavor, they also have some distinct differences. First, the two ingredients come from different plants and completely different regions! Star anise comes from the fruit of the Chinese evergreen tree, while anise seed comes from the anise plant—a member of the parsley family that’s native to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

While the two can be used as substitutes for one another, it’s important to note that the flavor in star anise is much stronger. When making the substitution in recipes, it’s recommended to use twice as much anise seed as you would star anise.

a Christmas them mug with a latte inside, and star anise and dried cranberries on the cup's saucer.
Union Coffee Co.’s sugar plum latte, featuring star anise, cranberry, and more. Photo courtesy of Union Coffee Co.

Star Anise in the Specialty-Coffee World

Star anise is popping up in specialty coffee in many ways. Located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Thank You Coffee offers a “five spice latte”—an espresso beverage inspired by Chinese five-spice powder, using ingredients like star anise, clove, and Szechuan peppercorn.

Milford, N.H.’s Union Coffee Co. also featured star anise in their holiday special, a sugar plum latte using star anise, prunes, apricots, and cranberries.

Though its sweet flavor and warming quality make star anise a go-to for holiday drinks and dishes, we love seeing cafés, restaurants, home cooks, and baristas alike making use of the ingredient year-round.


Emily Joy Meneses (she/they) is a writer and musician based in Los Angeles. Her hobbies include foraging, cortados, vintage synths, and connecting with her Filipino roots through music, art, food, and beverage.

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Barista Magazine is the leading trade magazine in the world for the professional coffee community.