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An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

posted on: Mar 27, 2019

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Popular in oriental cooking since time immemorial, fenugreek, a pulse, utilized as a spice, is yet to make its debut in the European and North American kitchen.  However, for centuries, in the Far East, India, Egypt and the other Middle Eastern lands it has been a different story. Besides using it in their cooking, the peoples in these lands employed it, through the ages, as a restorative and aphrodisiac.

Fenugreek was introduced by the Arabs into Europe a short time before the 9th century and almost immediately met with the approval of the aristocracy.  It is said that Charlemagne, in the early 9th century, favored this spice and encouraged its cultivation on the imperial farms in Germany. Nonetheless, in subsequent years, its use never became widespread in western lands.

Indigenous to the Near East, this aromatic spice was introduced by the Arabs to China where it still carries its Arabic name.   Also known as ‘bird’s foot’, ‘goat’s horn’ and ‘Greek Hayes’, it is, in our times, cultivated extensively on the periphery of the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indian sub-continent and, to some extent, in the temperate zones of North America.  Fenugreek is grown by some for human food and by others for its medical qualities or as a forage crop.

In India where fenugreek is known as hepoundét, in addition to the seeds being used as a spice, they are employed to overcome evil.  The leaves of a special variety, called kasoori methi, are brewed into a healthy tea or employed to flavor all types of gravies and sauces.  In the Arab countries, where fenugreek is known by its Indian name, the seeds are also widely utilized, especially in Yemen and Morocco – the latter country is the origin of much of this spice imported by North Americans.

Fenugreek, derived from the Latin foenun graecum, is an annual herb belonging to the Leguminosae (pea family).  To thrive, it needs a rich well-drained loamy-soil and sunny climate.  The seeds are planted in early spring when the danger of frost is past.  In the initial stage, the plants resemble clover. They reach the height of around two feet and produce bright green leaves and tiny off-white very fragrant flowers.

In about four months, they bear fruit in crescent shaped pods, up to six inches long, resembling string peas.  They contain from 5 to 20 brownish-yellow oblong, bumpy and deeply furrowed seeds. The pods are picked when ripe, but before they begin to shatter then dried in the sun and their seeds are stored until sold.

An unusual condiment with a very tenacious flavor, fenugreek has an agreeable aroma and a slightly bitter but somewhat sweet tang, reminiscent of sugar.  It has a nutty taste that combines the flavor of celery and maple. If used in large amounts, its strong aromatic punch will make food bitter, but if used in small quantities, it adds a unique taste to foods.

One of the oldest plants known to man, fenugreek is rich in protein and contains volatile, fixed oils, cellulose, resin, starch, sugar, mucilage and mineral elements.  In the past, besides its use in cooking, it was often employed in medicine.

Pliny extols the curative powers of its seeds in the treatment of female illnesses such as difficult labor and diseases of the uterus.  The ancient Egyptians utilized them to cure baldness and herbalists have, through the centuries, recommended them as a demulcent, expectorant, febrifuge, restorative; and in the treatment of anemia, diabetes, and rickets.  A curious belief in the oriental lands is that when fenugreek is consumed by females it tends to make them pleasantly plump.

In our modern age, even though pharmacologists and others question the effectiveness which was attributed to this spice by the ancients, it has been proven, to some extent, that fenugreek alleviates asthma, bronchitis, coughs, heartburns and eases stomach ailments; and their digestive properties help in counteracting flatulence.  The crushed seeds contain 30% mucilage and it has been established that when poultices are made from the crushed seeds, mixed with powdered charcoal, they are effective in the treatment of boils, ulcers, and wounds. In addition, a tea made from 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds, steeped for 5 minutes in two cups of boiling water has been found to be a nutritious drink, easing sore throats, fevers, and soothing intestinal pains.

The seeds are retailed usually whole, but can be found ground in Indian and specialty stores.  They are a great food enhancer, giving an added succulence to all types of meats and a rich mouth-watering taste to some desserts, beans, eggplants, lentils, peas and root vegetables, especially potatoes.  Also, the seeds can be sprouted and used as a vegetable in salads.

In India, the dried ground seeds are utilized in, and dominate, many condiments like curry products and chutneys, and the leaves, in the same manner as coriander leaves, are used in salads.  Some Arabs flavor their much-beloved halvah with fenugreek and, at times, employ the germinated seeds in their cuisine. In Egypt and other parts of North Africa, the crushed seeds are mixed with wheat flour in bread.  The Greeks add a little to honey, and in North America, aromatic oil is extracted and used as a substitute for maple essence in flavoring candies, cookies, ice cream, and syrups.

There is only one drawback to the use of this scented spice.  It must be employed in moderation. Dishes can easily be over-saturated if large amounts are added.  However, when cooks become familiar with this relatively unknown condiment in the western world, gourmet dishes will be their reward.

Fenugreek-Meat Soup

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves from 8 to 10

4 tablespoons olive oil

1-pound beef or lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 teaspoons ground fenugreek seeds

8 cups of water

2 medium potatoes, diced into 1-inch cubes

2 medium carrots, chopped into small pieces

1 cup fresh or frozen green peas

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté meat, onions, garlic, hot pepper and fenugreek over medium-low heat for 12 minutes.  Add water and bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients, except coriander and bring to boil.  Cook for a further 50 minutes or until both vegetables and meat are well-cooked. Stir in coriander and serve.

Fenugreek Flavoured Lentil Soup

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves about 8

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

2 teaspoons ground fenugreek

8 cups of water

3/4 cup dried lentils

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

2 medium potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes

4 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat oil in a saucepan; then sauté over medium-low heat onions, garlic, coriander leaves, fenugreek and hot pepper for 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients except for potatoes and lemon juice. Bring to boil and cover then cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Add potatoes and recover then cook for another 30 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and serve.

Fenugreek Flavoured Vegetable Casserole

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves about 6

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

2 medium onions, chopped

3 large sweet bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 medium firm tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

4 eggs

Heat oil in a frying pan until sizzling, then stir in fenugreek and stir-fry for 10 seconds.  Add onions, both peppers and garlic, then cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium-low heat. Transfer to a casserole and stir in remaining ingredients except for eggs.  Cover and bake for 40 minutes in a 350°F preheated oven. Break eggs over top, then bake uncovered for further 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Fenugreek Flavoured Beans

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves from 8 to 10

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound beef or lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 teaspoons ground fenugreek

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 cups dried navy beans (or similar type), soaked overnight in water mixed with 1 teaspoon baking soda and drained

8 cups of water

2 cups stewed tomatoes

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon black pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan; then sauté meat over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add onions, garlic, hot pepper, fenugreek, and coriander, then stir-fry for a further 5 minutes.  Add beans and water then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until beans are soft, adding more water if needed.

Stir in remaining ingredients and recover.  Cook for another 40 minutes and serve with cooked rice.

Fenugreek-Eggplant Stew

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves about  6

1 large eggplant, about 1-pound

1 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek seeds

2 medium onions, chopped

3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 cups stewed tomatoes

2 cups of water

Peel eggplant then dice into 3/4-inch cubes.  Place in a strainer and sprinkle with salt, then stir.  Place a heavy weight on top and allow to drain in a sink for 1 hour.

Heat oil in a saucepan over high heat until sizzling.  Add fenugreek seeds and stir-fry for about 10 seconds. Turn heat to medium then stir in eggplants and the remaining ingredients, except tomatoes and water.  Stir-fry for about 3 minutes then stir in tomatoes and water. Cover and simmer for about 40 minutes over low heat or until the eggplants and potatoes are well cooked, adding more water if necessary.  Serve hot – also can be served cold.

Fenugreek Flavoured Carrot And Potato Stew

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves about 8

4 tablespoons olive oil

1-pound beef or lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

4 cups stewed tomatoes

3 cups of water

2 teaspoons ground fenugreek

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

2 medium carrots, thinly chopped

4 medium potatoes, diced into 1-inch cubes

Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté meat over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.  Add onions, garlic and hot pepper, then fry for a further 10 minutes, stirring often.  Stir in tomatoes, water, fenugreek, salt, cumin and black pepper then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.  Add remaining ingredients and cook for a further 40 minutes or until carrots are well cooked. Serve hot.

Fenugreek Flavoured Ground Meat Stew

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves about 8

4 tablespoons cooking oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2-pounds ground beef

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

2 cups of water

4 tablespoons tomato sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup water

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then sauté over medium heat onion, garlic and hot pepper for 5 minutes.  Add meat and fenugreek, then fry for a further 10 minutes, stirring often. Stir in remaining ingredients, then cover and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes, adding more water if necessary.  Serve with cooked rice.

Fenugreek-Fish Pilaf

An Ancient Spice Yet to Be Discovered in Western Lands

Serves 4 to 6

3 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1-pound fish fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup rice, rinsed

2 1/2 cups boiling water

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Heat the oil in a frying pan, then sauté onion and garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add fish and fenugreek then gently stir-fry another 4 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and bring to boil.  Cover and turn heat to medium-low, then cook for 15 minutes, stirring a number of times and recovering to ensure that rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan.  Turn off heat and allow to cook in own steam for a further 30 minutes before serving.