Fenugreek, one of the earliest spices known to man, belongs to the bean family trigonella foenumgracum. Although fenugreek is a legume it is widely used as a spice in India and it is an integral part of many Indian spice blends. Fenugreek leaves, which are high in iron, are used as a leaf vegetable in curries as well as Indian flat breads. Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste, so the seeds are usually roasted and ground before use to mellow the bitterness. Dry roasting enhances the flavor and reduces the bitterness of fenugreek seeds. It needs close attention while toasting; it turns reddish brown and taste very bitter when over roasted. Use sparingly, as a little dried fenugreek goes a long way. Iran has a very rich tradition in cooking with fenugreek leaves. Fenugreek is also used in Northern and Eastern Africa as well as Western, Central and Southern Asia. Ethiopian spice mixture berebere include small amounts of fenugreek.
Fenugreek is native to southern Europe and western Asia. For centuries it has been cultivated in India, the Mediterranean and North Africa. . The name derives from the Latin ‘Greek hay” illustrating its classical use as fodder. Small and oblong shaped yellowish brown seeds of the fenugreek plant have a warm and slightly bitter taste. Fenugreek is rich in vitamins and minerals - a natural source of iron, silicon, sodium and thiamine. And because it is a seed and a legume, it is high in protein.
An erect annual of the bean family, fenugreek plant can grow to be about two feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds. The thin, sword-shaped pods have curved tips and carry 10 to 20 seeds. Mild Mediterranean climates are most suitable for the plant’s growth. Plants mature in about four months. The whole plant is uprooted and allowed to dry. The seeds are threshed out and further dried. The young plants are used as a vegetable; they are harvested when about eight inches high and tied in bundles like mint or parsley.
Fenugreek has a long history as culinary and a medicinal herb in the ancient world. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. In ancient Egypt it was used for the mummification process. During the Middle Ages it was used as a medicinal plant in Europe. Egyptians used it as a medication for fever.
An ancient medicinal herb, prescribed in India and the Middle East for a range of conditions from constipation to sore throats. Fenugreek is also a digestive aid. It also lowers blood pressure and Like many bitter-tasting foods, it is used as a treatment for diabetes. Fenugreek relieves congestion, reduces inflammation and fights infection. Modern research provides increasing evidence that fenugreek lowers blood cholesterol and blood sugar.
Some quick and easy ways to incorporate this healthy spice to Western cuisines are - . Cooked with potatoes or spinach they add a pleasantly bitter tang. Tender fenugreek leaves make a healthy addition to salads.