Despite the similarities in their name and flavor, anise and star anise are two very different spices. True anise, an herb in the parsley family, produces small seeds with a potent, licorice-like flavor. Star anise is the star-shaped fruit of a tree -- a member of the magnolia family -- native to warm-climate areas of southern China and Indochina. The unrelated plants contain the same flavor compound, a substance called anethole.
Anise is used widely in the Western culinary tradition. It lends its intensely aromatic flavor to sauces, baked goods and liqueurs, such as Greece's signature ouzo and French pastis. It's also used as a substitute for licorice in candy-making. Stronger-flavored star anise is widely used in Asian cooking, and it's a signature ingredient in Chinese "five-spice" powder. Like cinnamon sticks, the hard, woody fruit are often added whole to long-cooking sauces and then retrieved before the meal is served. Sauces combining star anise with onions and soy sauce produce new flavor compounds that accentuate the savoriness of meats.
A Few Substitutions
Conventional and star anise can be used interchangeably when ground, if cooks are careful to allow for star anise's greater strength. A number of other herbs and spices have similar flavors, including true licorice root. Others include caraway seed and fennel seed, less-pungent cousins to true anise. Pungent tarragon and milder fennel fronds can lend a similar flavor in some preparations if they're used generously.