Anise (and Fennel)


Lately, I’ve been cooking with Chinese 5-spice blend, which has a complex but mild licorice flavor. Now don’t turn your nose up just yet! I don’t like licorice and never have. But, I do like this blend. Although it can vary a bit, you’ll always find anise and fennel in it. Most contain cinnamon, cloves and pepper too. Some blends have ginger, licorice root and/or star anise as well.

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between anise and fennel? I know I have—especially when you look at the seeds. They look and taste very similar, but they come from entirely different plants.

Let’s start with Anise. Even that’s a little confusing. In some 5-spice blends you’ll find star anise, or Illicium verum. These are the beautiful little star-shaped pods that are used in many potpourris. They’re also used to flavor Vietnamese Pho broth. It is a carminative (relieves gas) and a diuretic.

Regular anise, aka pimpinella anisum, is a delicate herb that resembles dill. The seeds are dried and have a subtle licorice flavor. They’re used in teas and desserts to aid in digestion and relieve gas, in cough syrups (esp. for dry coughs), for colic, nausea, abdominal pain, hiccups, epilepsy, as an antiseptic in oils and as an insect repellant.

Fennel, or Feniculum, comes in many varieties, the most commonly eaten being Feniculum dulce or Florence Fennel (as pictured below). The plant forms a bulbous base, with stalks that resemble celery stalks, topped with feathery fronds like dill. The seeds are also dried and eaten like anise seeds to relieve gas and aid in digestion. 

The fennel bulb is a delicious vegetable that can be braised, added to soups, sautéed with other vegetables, and mixed into salads. The feathery fronds make a lovely garnish too!


Fennel is also useful for colic, coughs, bronchitis, backache, and was used in Medieval times to make food more palatable and relieve hunger pains during fasts, like Lent! It is said that fleas dislike the smell, so it was often ground into a powder and sprinkled around kennels.

Today, you’ll see fennel seeds served in Indian restaurants as an after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener. Look for it in natural cough syrups and lozenges too. But don’t forget that fennel is at home on your plate as well!




Grieve, A Modern Herbal (©1931)

Tierra, The Way of Herbs (©1980)

© Bobbi Mullins 2011, All rights reserved. FOOD FITNESS FAITH™