What is Fenugreek?

FR: Fenugrec Senegre, Trigonelle

GER: Bockshornklee or Griechisches Heu

INDIA: Methi

IT: Fieno Greco

SP: Alholva, Fenogreco

BOT: Trigonella foenumgraceum

FAM: Leguminosae (Papitionaceae)

ILL: Plate 10, No. 5

Fenugreek is from the Latinfenum graecum, ‘Greek hay’. A native of western Asia, it has been grown, as its name suggests, in Mediterranean countries since ancient times and is now naturalized there. It is occasionally cultivated further north as part of seed mixtures for forage. In general appearance it is something like a clover with a tiny pea-like flower. The seeds are bitter with a faint but characteristic smell and they contain a yellow colouring. They are used as a spice in the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, such as Greece and Egypt, but fenugreek will most often be met with as an ingredient of Indian curries. For this purpose it is usually lightly roasted before grinding so that it just changes colour; if over-roasted it turns red and is then very bitter indeed. To begin with the flavour and scent of fenugreek seed is not strong – though it is very variable in both size and flavour -but after roasting and grinding if it is kept for some days the characteristic smell of cheap curry powder (or poultry spice) develops. Many people do not like this, others do not like a curry without. Fenugreek contains coumarin and is a usual ingredient of bought curry powders. It has a reputation for preventing wind, a reputation it certainly does not share with other members of the pea-bean family.

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Fenugreek is also important for its green leaf, especially in India where it is curried as a vegetable. I have experimented with it cooked as a spinach in the Western manner, but it is exceedingly bitter and rather unpleasant when prepared in this way. Curried as in Indian recipes, where bitter plants are often used, it is excellent and, as it is very easy to grow in the garden (viable unroasted seed can be bought as a spice in Indian shops), I can recommend growing it to those people who enjoy Indian food. Other species of Trigonella are also eaten in India, and there are both wild and selected garden varieties, so there can be considerable variation depending on where the seed has come from

If fenugreek seed is sown in boxes and grown to the two-leaf (cotyledon) stage like mustard and cress, it makes a five-star salad when dressed with oil and vinegar. The taste is refreshing, new and unusual. I learned this from an American family living near Bombay. They had found that it was doubly useful where market green salads were risky. Home grown fenugreek provided a fresh clean salad, which even the young children could eat safely.

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