Star anise is a striking spice, both in appearance and taste. In Cantonese, it's called bat gok (eight angles, or corners), although it sometimes has more or fewer than eight points making up the "star". Its flavour is similar to that of anise seed, but star anise is much stronger; often, recipes will call for a certain number of star anise points, rather than a whole one, because too much will overwhelm the other ingredients. Each of the points contains a shiny seed, which I usually discard when using whole pieces of the spice. People may know to avoid biting into a star anise point, but they might overlook the seed and eat it. It's not harmful to consume, but the flavour is extremely strong.
Ground star anise is one of the ingredients in five-spice powder. It's also an essential ingredient in antiviral drug Tamiflu.
The strong, licorice-y flavour of star anise pairs beautifully with meat, especially pork and beef.
I like to add it to the Chinese dish of braised beef brisket and tendon, which I also season with soy sauce, rice wine, cinnamon sticks and whole black peppercorns.
It makes an unusual but delicious addition to certain desserts, too. I love star anise with poached and roasted pineapple. Remove and discard the skin, eyes and core from a small pineapple, then sprinkle salt over the flesh and leave for about 30 minutes - the salt draws out the acidity, and makes the pineapple taste sweeter. Rinse the fruit well so no salty flavour remains, then poach the whole pineapple in sugar syrup (equal weights of sugar and water) that's been flavoured with a whole cinnamon stick, several cloves, a whole star anise and some dark rum. Cook the pineapple until the flesh is tender but still firm, then cool it in the syrup. When it's time to serve dessert, take the pineapple from the syrup and put it on a baking tray that's been lined with aluminium foil. Heat the pineapple under the grill to caramelise the exterior, turning it often so it cooks evenly (or you can use a propane torch to brown it). Slice it at the table and serve with vanilla ice cream or rum and raisin ice cream.