What Is Fenugreek And How Can It Be Used?

“Fenugreek has a repugnant odour and for centuries was believed by Europeans to inflame ‘low’ passions (ie lust) and provoke sensual dreams.”

Lana Citron, Edible Pleasures

In Amy Stewart’s fascinating and informative book, The Drunken Botanist she describes a period between 2005 and 2009 when people living in New York, gifted with a particularly acute sense of smell, inexplicably began craving pancakes.

Why? They were smelling what they thought was maple syrup. And in true Pavlovian style to them that meant pancakes. The source was finally traced to a factory processing industrial perfumes and flavourings… and one of the strongest odours to waft from the factory buildings was fenugreek.

This small herb from the bean family (Trigonella Foenum-graecum is its botanical name) gives off a scent of caramel, or maple syrup. So much so that it is actually used to make ersatz, cheap maple syrup. The scent is produced by the chemical Sotolon.

Fenugreek probably originates from the middle east (seeds were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb as well as in an ancient site in Iraq) but cultivation spread to the Indian sub-continent and the plant is now a common ingredient in curry, and it’s an essential ingredient to a classic curry powder. On my recent visit to Turkey I found it used in çemen, a paste made from ground fenugreek seeds, garlic and chilli. Fenugreek on its own is overpowering and inadvisable unless in very small quantities. It has health benefits too – it stimulates breast milk post-childbirth (that’s been known for centuries) but it also has recently been discovered to, possibly, help ward off colds.

The leaves of the fenugreek plant can be used as a herb; sprouts (sometimes known as methi) can be added to salads or they can be sauteed with thinly sliced carrots, some dry-fried and pounded cumin seeds, garam masala, amchur and a little Aleppo pepper to make the Indian dish gajar methi; or, more commonly, the seeds (which are very hard) are dry-fried and then ground and used as a spice. Dry-frying or roasting the seeds makes them less hard – they only need a minute – too much heat causes them to become bitter.

And there are strong suspicions that it is also one of the key ingredients in the classic summer drink Pimm’s No 1. The compilation of this drink, like Campari, is top secret, but aficionados of this gin-based version of Pimm’s swear they can detect the presence of fenugreek.

Old Delhi-style chicken is a great recipe which uses fenugreek.

“There’s a growing interest in bitter flavour profiles among chefs such as Sat Bains, as well as the general public. I activate fenugreek seeds and then use them in salads, and I’m experimenting with karela (bitter melon) paired with lamb.”

Vivek Singh, head chef of Cinnamon Club, quoted in Food And Travel, January 2020

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