Coffee has always been my beverage of choice, but two winters ago in an attempt to reduce an addiction to caffeine and propelled by a need to overcome the chilling sensation of cold in that harsh December, I turned to drinking hot anise or aniseed (yansoon in Arabic).
I used two sachets to be exact, immersed in a mug of boiling water, covered for five minutes, and then left to infuse their fragrance. Honey can be added, though the sweetness of anise might be sufficient in itself.
Looking back at that particular winter, I remember suffering fewer bouts of colds and not actually going down with the flu, as used to happen almost every winter. In a casual conversation with a friend, she mentioned that her children’s doctor had recommended that she give them warm anise to help alleviate their symptoms of colds and sore throat. Intrigued, I decided to research what has now become (in addition to coffee) my favourite beverage of choice.
Perhaps it came as no surprise to me to find that, like many herbs, anise has been a mainstay in humanity’s medicine chest for thousands of years. Scientifically referred to as pimpinella anisum or anisum vulgare, anise is not to be confused with the more pungent star anise (illicium verum), which is grown in China from a mid-sized evergreen tree and is also known to have strong antiviral and antibacterial properties. It is used in the manufacture of important drugs used to treat influenza and viral infections.
Our Egyptian anise, or yansoon, with its sweet, licorice-like flavour, belongs to the parsley family and is related to caraway, cumin and dill, all of which are widely used in Egyptian cooking. Anise is grown in the Mediterranean region as well as in parts of Latin America, the US and Southwest Asia. It is recorded as having originated in Egypt some four millennia ago, and it is still extensively cultivated and harvested in the autumn in the Saeed of Upper Egypt.
Testimony to anise’s long history of cultivation in Egypt is the fact that its seeds have been excavated in tombs in Thebes. Prescriptions written on ancient Egyptian papyri recommend anise, with its anti-inflammatory and anti-convulsant properties, as a remedy for a wide range of ailments from respiratory diseases to digestive and skin problems. It has also been traditionally recommended as a relaxant and pain reliever.
Similar records regarding the benefits of anise are present in the medical literature of ancient Greece. With its sweet and yet mildly spicy licorice-like flavour, the taste of anise is reminiscent of tarragon and basil.
It is harvested from the flowers of a small and ornamental-looking herb with a profusion of white flowers, which in turn is related to dill, cumin, fennel and caraway. Anise can be used to cook a wide variety of dishes both savoury and sweet from rice to rice pudding and biscuits and cakes, such as the famous Italian biscotti. It is also used to manufacture anise-based alcohols and liqueurs, such as the famous Greek ouzo, Lebanese arak, Balkan mastic and the pastis and anisette of France.
In Egypt, anise is a traditional winter drink often offered at homes and in popular cafes, along with ginger, mint and caraway. Here again its widespread popularity is based on a belief in the soothing effects of anise on bronchial and throat infections, as well as because of its digestive properties.
In the Egyptian kitchen, anise can be one of the ingredients used in dakkah, a multi-spice blend of sesame seeds, coriander, cumin and salt and pepper. The amount of anise should be minimal because of its pungent flavour. A traditional Egyptian biscuit called minein usually has anise seeds as its trademark flavour. Minein is a dense cracker that can be eaten alone or with cheese, and it is usually accompanied by a cup of black tea
Anise seeds should be bought in small quantities in order to retain their freshness.
In the winter, anise can be combined with a number of blends when added to coffee, hot chocolate, milk, green or black tea, and ginger. One recommended winter recipe calls for boiling cinnamon in either powder form or sticks, along with anise, and simmering the mixture on a gentle fire for ten minutes. Once off the fire, black tea may also be added to this concoction and then left to steep for three minutes. For an added rush of well-being, I recommend adding a pinch of ginger as well.
All of the previous recipes can be simplified by using the spices in sachet form and just combining them to taste. Anise in its raw seed form can also be paired with a wide range of dishes, adding flavour and a slightly crunchy texture to salad and vegetable trays, platters of citrus fruits, pineapple, mint, figs or carrots, as well as when added to fish and lamb.
One original take on anise even has it added to pasta sauce. Despite its versatility, the benefits of anise are easy to attain in its pure form.
One example of this is a simple remedy for flatulence in children, which is prescribed as follows: put a teaspoon of anise in a cup, pour boiling water over it and cover, leaving it to infuse for five minutes. Strain into another cup and serve.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly