(Food) Dahon ng Anis

The lovely dahon ng anis or kalumata tree.
I have long been perplexed by references in old rice cake recipes to "dahon ng anis" or anise leaf. This is because true anise leaves are feathery and would fall apart when cooked in kakanin, making for truly weird and unattractive eating. I had always assumed that the recipe-imparters meant "seeds" of the anise plant, and not "leaves".

Things began to take a dramatic turn around ten years ago. Upon hiking the wonderful Mt. Malarayat, Lipa, Batangas, I found a tree with fruit that were obviously of the citrus persuasion, but with leaves that smelled curiously of anise and caramel (caramelized anise?). I balled a couple of seedlings up and planted them in my garden and grew them, their identity a mystery for a few years.

One night, I was furiously procrastinating by reading up on essential oils and oleoresins of the Philippines instead of working on a deadline. In my loopy, reality-evading mania, I chanced upon a reference to a plant that was used during the Spanish time to substitute for true anise (Pimpinella anisum) in making anisado liquor.

Turns out, the leaves referred to as dahon ng anis were actually kalumata (Clausena anisum-olens) leaves. Once a common backyard plant, it is now very sporadically propagated and yet still thrives well in low rainforests, though it is on the red list. Traditional uses of the plant include making into tea for morning sickness, boiling into a bath for rheumatism, and stuffing the leaves into pillows to create a calming "soporific" effect. Burning the leaves is said to repel ticks and mosquitoes.

And in food, of course! Those hints of anise that once added subtle complexity to our rice cakes and delicacies are disappearing altogether, save for a few popular snacks. I observe that this family of warm round tastes (also imparted by pandan) is now being replicated by artificial vanilla flavoring. It's quite possible that anise seeds and these leaves were used interchangeably in dishes. I have only found them documented in snacky sweet dishes, specifically in rice cakes, sweetened macapuno, and a specific native fried dough treat called gorgorya.

Our local neighborhood biko, which people love because the grandma making it still uses real anise seeds to flavor it.
We welcome you to try these (now) rare leaves! Clausena anisum-olens is a very aromatic endemic with irresistible flavor. Dunking a few leaves into a chilling pitcher of coconut water is a good way to start getting to know them.

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