Fenugreek Seed And Leaf

Called in Sanskrit methika, fenugreek was cultivated in Egypt as early as 1000 BC. It was prized throughout the Middle East and in India as a flavoring, medicine, and fumigant, while in Europe mainly for medicinal use. The Egyptians and Indians soaked the seeds in water until they swelled and then used them to reduce fevers and aid digestion. By AD 1050, fenugreek had spread as far as China.

The name fenugreek is derived from the Latin word foenum graecum, which translates to "Greek hay" (strong haylike aroma of dried leaves); it was never used as a spice in Greek cooking. Today, North Indians and Middle Easterners enjoy fenugreek (both seeds and leaves) in their cooking, but many Westerners do not like its strong bitter taste.

Scientific Name(s): Trigonella foenum-graecum. Family: Leguminosae or Fabaceae (bean family).

Origin and Varieties: native to the eastern Mediterranean, fenugreek is now cultivated in India, Pakistan, France, Morocco, Greece, Lebanon, Germany, Argentina, and the United States.

Common Names: fenugreek was called Greek hay and goat's horn or cow's horn in ancient times because of its horn-shaped seed pods. The seeds and leaves are called by the same name in many countries where the leaves are eaten. Seed is also called abish (Amharic), hulba (Arabic), chaiman (Armenian), mithiguti (Assamese), methi (Bengali, Marathi), penantazi (Burmese), wuih lu bah, hu lu ba (Cantonese, Mandarin), bukkehorns klover (Danish), fenegriek (Dutch), shambelile (Farsi), fenugrek (French), bockshornklee (German), trigonella (Greek), menthro (Gujerati), methi (Hindi, Urdu), hilbeh (Hebrew), kelabat (Indonesian), fieno greco (Italian), koruha (Japanese), halba (Malaysian), venthiam (Malayalam), bukkehornklover (Norwegian), feno grego (Portuguese), menthri (Punjab), pazhitnik grecheskiy (Russian), uluhaa (Singhalese), alholva/fenogreco (Spanish), uwatu (Swahili), bock-hornsklover (Swedish), vendayam, meti (Tamil), menti kura (Telegu), meeti (Tibetan), cemen (Turkish), and co cari (Vietnamese).

Fenugreek leaf: methini (Gujerati), saag methi (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu), ho lo bah (Vietnamese).

Form: the seeds are enclosed in long sickle-shaped pods. They are light to yellow brown, smooth yet hard, and have a deep diagonal groove that divides each seed. The seeds come whole or ground. The green leaves, called saag methi in North India, are sold as fresh whole leaves and as dried whole or crushed leaves.

Properties: the seeds are bitter tasting, but when they are lightly dry roasted, their flavor mellows and some of the bitterness is removed. The aroma of roasted fenugreek is like that of burnt sugar, and its taste is comparable to maple syrup. Once roasted, the seeds are used whole, crushed, or ground. The leaves taste very bitter, slightly resembling lovage with a sweet haylike aroma.

Chemical Components: the seed has very little essential oil, less than 0.02%. Its aroma is due to a compound called 3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethyl-oxolane-2-furanone. It also includes n-alkanes, sesquiterpenes lactones and alkanoles. When the seed is toasted, pyrazines (major components) are formed. The fixed oil is 7% to 10%. The nonvolatile components contain trigonelline, choline, sterol and diosgenin derivatives, and furostanol glycosides, which are responsible for its bitter taste.

The oleoresin is dark brown to greenish yellow and is high in proteins, gums, mucilage, and saponin. The fixed oil has linoleic, oleic, and linolenic acids.

The seeds contain fiber (a high amount), folic acid, vitamin A (1040 IU/100 gm), calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and sodium. After roasting, the niacin content increases. The leaf contains calcium, iron, carotene, and vitamin C (43 mg/100 g) that decrease with frying, boiling, or steaming, with the last cooking method showing the least loss. Its mucilage content is 40%, which is a concentrated source of dietary fiber.

How Prepared and Consumed: fenugreek is an important spice in India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Armenia, and Turkey. The seeds pair well with fish and lentils and, thus, are commonly used in fish curries and dals in South India and Southeast Asia. Vegetarians in India dry roast the seeds or fry in hot oil and use them whole or ground to flavor curries, sambars, fermented breads, and chutneys. In India, fenugreek seed is an essential ingredient in many pickles and spice blends, such as sambar podi in the south, and panchporon in Bengal. In South India, the seeds are added to rice flour and lentil flour to make fermented flat breads such as dosai and idli. It is also roasted and ground and mixed with dried, ground chile peppers and other spices to be used as a dry-based seasoning dip for local breads.

In Iran, the seeds and the leaves are used. The seeds are toasted and added to salads to provide crunchiness. In the Middle East, fenugreek seeds are ground into a paste and rubbed on salted meat, which is then dried. This salted, spiced beef is called pastourma in Iraq and aboukht in Turkey. In Yemen, fenugreek is mixed with coriander leaf, tomato, chili paste, garlic, and other spices to make a hot dip called hilbeh, which is used as a spread for breads. Yemenites also use fenugreek in a seasoning called zhug, which is added as a topping to stews. Armenians use it with garlic and chile pepper in a spice called chemen to spice up a beef dish called bastirma. The Greeks boil fenugreek seeds and eat them with honey.

Ethiopians add fenugreek to a spice mixture, berbere, for seasoning meats, seafood, and vegetables, while Egyptians use them in sweets and flatbreads. In many regions of Africa, they are soaked until they swell up and then are used as legumes. In the United States, fenugreek seeds are used in soups, baked goods, icings, and meat seasonings. They are the main ingredients in artificial maple syrup. Because the seeds have high mucilage (40%), they can be used as a natural stabilizer in processed foods.

Fresh fenugreek leaves and young shoots are used as cooked vegetables by many cultures. The fresh leaves are enjoyed in many Iranian traditional dishes with parsley, mint, and other spices. In North India, the leaves are cooked with garlic, potatoes, and other root vegetables or used in breads such as methi naan. It goes well with fish, meats, and chicken curries of North India. The dried leaves are used as a seasoning in many dishes.

Spice Blends: fish curry blend, sambar podi, berbere, chemen, zhug, panch phoron, hilbeh, and aboukht blend.

Therapeutic Uses and Folklore: Egyptians used fenugreek paste on the body to reduce fever and to cure chapped lips and mouth ulcers. They also used fenugreek along with other spices in the embalming process. Romans ate fenugreek seeds because they were considered an aphrodisiac. The Greeks and Romans, not realizing its potential as a spice, used fenugreek as cattle fodder to increase cow's milk flow and to restore nitrogen to the soil.

In Indonesia, fenugreek is used to promote hair growth. In India, Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia, the seeds are soaked in water (the seeds swell because they are coated with mucilage) and are then drained and eaten to aid digestion, as a laxative, to treat bronchitis, and to cure sore throats. It is used to prevent sharp rises in blood sugar and to lower cholesterol.

In Ethiopia, nursing mothers take fenugreek to promote production of milk. In India, women take fenugreek to help with menstrual cramps and difficult childbirths and to promote lactation after the baby is born.

The leaves are believed to stimulate bile secretion and to aid in the digestion of fatty meat.

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