For some food fanatics, it’s all about the looks- making a plate into a blank canvas for swirls of edible color and a facade diners can be reluctant to break. But I prefer to taste those colorful explosions and revel in how they come together in my mouth. Lately, my star ingredient has been anise. There’s crispy, refreshing fennel stalks shooting out with fragrant fronds like tall, lush grasses soaking up tropical Mediterranean nourishment. There’s lemony, nutty fennel seeds and rich licorice flavor of anise seeds that dots European and Middle Eastern cuisine, and are candy-coated in a rainbow of colors for spooning into mouths as after-dinner apparatuses in India. And lastly, there’s sweet star anise, its floral, subtler flavor captivating even ardent licorice haters and easing them in with sweet and spicy dishes perfected in the Pacific.
Though often overlooked, and even interchanged, anise and it’s cousin fennel appear in all forms around the world to give a palate pop or an earthy nuance to all sorts of dishes. Just take a stroll down the grocery store isles, and you’ll start seeing it in everything. I first came across anise while copying my favorite celebrity face, Giada De Laurentis, waiting to put smiles on faces by pumping out warm batches of her Chocolate Anise Biscotti. One taste of how the slightly bitter notes of the oven-toasted seeds complemented the smooth richness of chocolate chips and got me paying more attention to the culinary possibilities of the edible plant. From salads to gnocchi, to my favorite thirst quencher, Thai Iced Tea, anise in all its forms make a regular appearance into my cooking, baking, and culinary adventures.
Fennel and anise alike even bring the sunny beaches of the Mediterranean to brighten the simple and cool spirits of Scandinavians. Following a line of spices that came to Sweden and its Nordic cousins via the Silk Road, the anise flavor is beloved by Swedes for its ability to add zip to humble dishes. It helps them preserve summer and feed bright ideas like the anise and dill-infused spirit known as Aquavit- lifting people out of winter doldrums and helping them drown their sorrows in gravlax. It transforms ordinary cookies and gives Sweden its own unique version of lemony-spice infused rye bread called Limpa. It takes an otherwise plain cuisine into a satisfying meal that sings in your mouth. You see, Sweden might not seem like a food capitol, and anise might not be the prized ingredient, but a simple pinch of spice and the know how to use and respect something so sacred that makes a difference in a treat you want to eat again and again. Just try my Little Limpa, and see for yourself!