‘Spice Chains’: Vietnamese Star Anise, Global Markets, and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity

What can the ‘social life’ of a thing tell us about social change, globalization, relationships, or economics? The ‘Spice Chains’ project traces the the biography of star anise as it passes through numerous different hands and cultural domains on its journey from its origins as a Vietnamese forest product to a global food and pharmaceutical commodity.

‘Spice Chains’ is a new three-year research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Led by Prof. Dr. Annuska Derks, the project is part of research collaboration between the Department of Social Anthropology  and Popular Culture at the University of Zurich and the Department of Geography at McGill University, and seeks to unravel spice chains in Vietnam and beyond.

A major component of the project is an investigation of the commodity chain of star anise, the star-shaped spice grown in the culturally and ecologically diverse highland regions along the border of Vietnam and China. The project will combine extended participant observation among star anise producers with multi-sited ethnographies of traders, consumers, and others engaged in the processing, marketing and consumption of the spice. 

Taking theoretical inspiration from anthropologies of economy, food, globalisation and material culture, the research team will follow star anise through its complex social lives, geographies and histories, and attempt to answer questions including:

  1. From forest product to commodity: What role does star anise play in the lives and livelihood strategies in upland Vietnam? What are the ethnic, economic, and social relations governing the different nodes in the production, trade and use of star anise? What can the star anise chain tell us about relations between upland and lowland Vietnam?
  2. Star anise and the global spice market: Where does Vietnamese star anise go? How can we account for the changing uses and status of star anise in the domestic as well as global market for spices? How is ‘Vietnameseness’ invoked in the marketing of star anise on the global market? And who benefits?

What ist Star Anise?

Star anise (hoa hi in Vietnamese) is the star shaped fruit of the illicium verum tree, which is native to Vietnam and China. In Vietnam it is predominantly grown by farmers from ethnic minority communities in northern highland areas, and is traded and consumed globally.  In different times and places it is variously a cash crop; a ‘traditional’ medicine; an ingredient in the Vietnamese national dish ph; an important seasoning for the increasing consumption of meat in China; a flavouring in French colonial-era liqueours and ‘Oriental’ cuisine, and a source of the active ingredient in the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. The spice’s biography makes visible the links in a chain that bind together ethnic minority farmers with Vietnamese state policy makers, food marketers with foreign consumers, and small-scale brokers with international pharmaceutical corporations.

Who is who?

Prof. Dr. Annuska Derks

Annuska Derks is the leader of the Spice Chains project. She is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich and Chair of the Department’s focus area on “Social Transformation Processes“. She has conducted extensive research in Southeast Asia, in particular Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Her main areas of research are migration, labor, gender, material culture, urban anthropology and social change. 

Matthew Parsfield M.A.

Matthew Parsfield is the principal investigator on the Vietnamese star anise component of the project, which will form the basis of his PhD dissertation. He gained his B.A. degree at Balliol College, University of Oxford, and holds an M.A. in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. From 2013 until 2016 he was a researcher at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London.

Contact: matthew.parsfield@uzh.ch