What is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek is a native to India and southern Europe. For centuries it has grown wild in India, the Mediterranean and North Africa. where it is mainly cultivated. A limited crop grows in France. It was used by the ancient Egyptians to combat fever and grown in classical times as cattle fodder.
Commercially, it is used in the preparation of mango chutneys and as a base for imitation maple syrup. In India, it is used medicinally and as a yellow dyestuff. It is also an oriental cattle fodder and is planted as a soil renovator.
In the West, fenugreek’s therapeutic use is now largely confined to the treatment of animals, though historically. it has been used in human medicine. The name derives from the Latin ‘Greek hay” illustrating its classical use as fodder.
Fenugreek is the small stony seeds from the pod of a bean-like plant. The seeds are hard, yellowish brown and angular. Some are oblong, some rhombic, other virtually cubic, with a side of about 3mm (1/8”). A deep furrow all but splits them in two. They are available whole and dried, or as a dull yellow powder, ground from the roasted seeds.
Bouquet: Warm and penetrating, becoming more pronounced when the seeds are roasted. Ground, they give off a ‘spicy’ smell, pungent, like an inferior curry powder which would probably contain too much fenugreek.
Flavour: Powerful, aromatic and bittersweet, like burnt sugar. There is a bitter aftertaste, similar to celery or lovage.
Hotness Scale: 2
An erect hairy annual of the bean family, reaching 30-60 cm (1-2 ft.). The long slender stems bear tripartite, toothed, grey-green obovate leaves, 20-25 mm (3/4-1 in) long. The root is a mass of fingery structures. The sissile axillary flowers are white or pale yellow. The thin, sword-shaped pods are 10-15 cm (4-6 in), with a curved beak-like tip, each carrying 10-20 seeds. The plant radiates a spicy odour which persists on the hands after touching. Wild and cultivated varieties exist. Mild Mediterranean climates are most suitable. Plants mature in about four months. The whole plant is uprooted and allowed to dry. The seeds are threshed out and further dried.
Cooking with Fenugreek
Fenugreek can be used both as a herb and a spice — the flavour is similar in both. The leaves are available fresh, frozen, or dried. Fresh leaves are used as leafy greens in curries, especially with potatoes, or folded into fry-breads. When dried, the leaves retain most of their flavour and make excellent last-minute additions to sauces, curries, and soup. The seeds benefit from longer cooking to infuse with other flavours so start with the seeds and finish with the leaves. This two-stage approach “refreshes” the spice, giving you the best of long-cooked flavour and barely-heated aromas.
The major use of fenugreek seeds is in curry powders, figuring in many mixtures, especially vindaloo and the hot curries of Sri Lanka. It is an ingredient of Panch phoron, the Indian five-spice mixture. In home-made powders, the amount used can be controlled, but in cheap bought powders it often overpowers. When fish is curried, particularly strong-tasting fish such as tuna and mackerel, fenugreek is frequently included in the spice mixture. Give the seeds a pan roast to reduce their bitterness, then add to pickle brines, homemade curry powders, or your next batch of niter kibbeh, an Ethiopian spiced butter (Ethiopian cuisine loves fenugreek). Many chutneys and pickles incorporate it and it gives a tangy aroma to vegetables. The seeds are an ingredient of the Middle Eastern confection halva.
The leaves, both fresh and dried, are used in meat curries, dhal and vegetable dishes and chutneys. Fenugreek is the perfect bittersweet counterpart to dark, leafy greens that have a
Fenugreek is the perfect bittersweet counterpart to dark, leafy greens that have a bitter edge. It works well with strong flavours like coriander, cumin, and paprika. It deepens the savoury notes of tomatoes in sauces and stews and is stellar in simmered tomatoes with okra. Be careful though: even though pan-roasting reduces its bitterness, too much fenugreek is overwhelmingly bitter and even when used in appropriate amounts, you’ll want to finish your dish with a heavy sprinkling of lime or lemon juice. The acid cuts a sweetness that would otherwise be cloying and is necessary to draw out all the rounded, complex flavours fenugreek has to offer.
Flour mixed with ground fenugreek makes a spicy bread. In India, the roasted ground seeds are infused for a coffee substitute or adulterant. A tea can be made by infusing teaspoon of seed with two cups of water for five minutes.
Preparation and Storage
Dried seeds should be lightly roasted before using (don’t overdo it though, or they will become bitter). After roasting, they are easily ground. A small amount will complement many other spices, but too much can be overpowering. If the seeds are required as part of a curry paste they can be soaked overnight to swell and soften and be easily mixed with the other ingredients.
Health Benefits of Fenugreek
Fenugreek is a digestive aid. As an emollient, it is used in poultices for boils, cysts and other complaints. Reducing the sugar level of the blood, it is used in diabetes in conjunction with insulin. It also lowers blood pressure. Fenugreek relieves congestion, reduces inflammation and fights infection. Fenugreek contains natural expectorant properties ideal for treating sinus and lung congestion and loosens & removes excess mucus and phlegm.
Fenugreek is also an excellent source of selenium, an anti-radiant which helps the body utilize oxygen. Fenugreek is a natural source of iron, silicon, sodium and thiamine. Fenugreek contains mucilagins which are known for soothing and relaxing inflamed tissues. Fenugreek stimulates the production of mucosal fluids helping remove allergens and toxins from the respiratory tract. Acting as an expectorant, Fenugreek alleviates coughing, stimulates perspiration to reduce fevers, and is beneficial for treating allergies, bronchitis and congestion.
In the East, beverages are made from the seed to ease stomach trouble. The chemical makeup is curiously similar to cod liver oil, for which a decoction of the seed is sometimes used as a substitute. Many other properties are ascribed to it in India and the East and not surprisingly include aphrodisiac. Fenugreek seeds contain alkaloids, including trigonelline, gentianine and carpaine compounds. The seeds also contain fiber, 4-hydroxyisoleucine and fenugreekine, a component that may have hypoglycemic activity. The mechanism is thought to delay gastric emptying, slow carbohydrate absorption and inhibit glucose transport. Fenugreek may also increase the number of insulin receptors in red blood cells and improve glucose utilization in peripheral tissues, thus demonstrating potential anti-diabetes effects both in the pancreas and other sites. The amino acid 4- hydroxyisoleucine, contained in the seeds, may also directly stimulate insulin secretion.
How to Grow Fenugreek
It is best to sow fenugreek seeds outdoors in the herb garden. It can grow in pots or in the ground but keep in mind it does not like to be transplanted. Sow them at about 6 mm deep into a warm soil in the middle of spring. It should only take 3-5 days for the seeds to germinate; if germinating fenugreek indoors then give them a temperature of about 20 to 25 degrees centigrade. You may want to sow more seeds every 2-3 weeks in the season so that when the first set of plants die you will be able to continue harvesting.
Ideally, fenugreek should be spaced at about 10cm apart and grown in an area that has lots of sun and a well-drained soil that is rich and slightly acidic to neutral (pH 6 to 7). Keep the soil moist but do not over water.
Harvesting Fenugreek Seeds
The plants will produce beans containing the seeds. Wait to harvest until the plants begin to die off. Collect the seed pods and thresh them to extract the seeds. Leave the seeds in the sun to dry. Store them in an air-tight container and keep from sunlight to maintain flavour.
Harvesting Fenugreek Leaves
The leaves are ready to harvest within 3 – 4 weeks. Cut the leaves from the top of the plants as you need them. This encourages additional growth so you will be able to harvest again after a couple of weeks.
How to Make Fenugreek Sprouts
Put seeds in a jar and cover with three to four inches of water above the seeds. Drain the water and cover seeds with a muslin cloth and leave in a dark place. The seeds will sprout in two to three days.
Bird’s Foot, Foenugreek, Goat’s Horn
French: fenugrec Sénegré, trigonelle
German: Bockshornklee, Griechisches Heu
Italian: fieno greco
Spanish: alholva, fenogreco
Indian: mayti, methe, methi