Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fenugreek - Herb of the Week

In keeping with this week’s theme of saving seed (see yesterday’s post about Diane Ott Whealy and Seed Savers) I chose an herb which is used mostly for the seeds as today’s
herb of the week -- Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

Technically Fenugreek is both an herb (meaning you can use the leaves) and a spice (meaning you can use the seeds.) The plant is native to western Asia and has been widely grown in countries bordering the Mediterranean.   It is popular in African, Middle Eastern and East Indian dishes.  Maple-flavored syrup can be made from Fenugreek seeds which can and has been used to make maple candy and ice cream.

Fenugreek is a member of the pea family which becomes obvious when you look at its flowers and almost clover-like leaves. The common name means “Greek Hay” which it received because the maple flavor and scent were used to disguise mold smells and tastes in hay and grain. Another of the herbs the ancient Egyptians used in mummification, it was also burned in religious rites among the Romans and Greeks.  It was the Benedictine monks that introduced this herb to Western Europe in the 9th century and practitioners in the Middle ages used it to treat liver and kidney diseases.  By the 19th century it was a common ingredient in patent medicines.  You can find it used as an ingredient in artificial maple flavoring.  In the United States today it is a little known and under appreciated herb that has actually becoming valuable in treating diabetes, so I thought it would make a great herb of the week.

To Grow

The ideal hardiness zone for this plant is Zone 6, but treating it as an annual it can be grown in zone 5.)  With its three-part leaves Fenugreek closely resembles clover.  It grows up to 2 feet tall.  In midsummer the plant begins producing fragrant off-white flowers that can keep reappearing for several months if the weather remains mild.  Fenugreek bolts in hot weather making it a short-lived crop.  It is best to treat it as an annual.  The seed pods look a lot like green beans, but point up instead of hanging down. 

To plant wait until the soil is warm (cold damp soil will rot the seeds), then soak the seeds overnight before planting them.  This will speed up the germination allowing them to mature and produce seed before the heat kills them in the hot months of summer.  They prefer a moist, well-drained soil, like most herbs.  They do need a rich soil, as like all peas they need a lot of nutrients to grow.  They will do well with a top dressing early in the season and an all-purpose fertilizer throughout the growing season.

Thin seedlings to 4 inches apart.  You will have ripe seeds about 4 months after germination. Harvest the seed pods when ripe, but before they begin to shatter.  Remove the seed from the pods and dry them in the sun. There are about 20 yellowish-brown seeds in each pod, which harden when dried.  It is a cuboid yellow to amber colored seed. It will grow up to two feet in height so place the plants based on that finished size, recognizing that if the weather gets hot they will also die back.  In other words, do not make them a focal point in your garden landscape.

To Use

Because of its ability to disguise the smell of moldy hay it was actually added to cattle fodder as its earliest use, but now it is recognized that both the leaves and the seeds have many medicinal and culinary uses.

The flavor of fenugreek walks on a fine line between a bitter celery-like flavor to the sweetness of maple and can be a challenge to work with as some experimentation is required to get just the right flavor.  You can add whole seeds to pickling brine.

The dried leaves – also called kasuri methi (or kasoori methi in North India and Pakistan), after the region of Kasur in Punjab, Pakistan province where it grows abundantl, have a bitter taste and a characteristically strong smell. Fenugreek is frequently used in the production of flavoring for artificial maple syrups. The taste of toasted fenugreek is like cumin.  The ground seeds are an essential ingredient in Indian curries, being wonderful also on meats and poultry and used often in chutneys.  The sprouted seeds are good as a salad, tossed in a vinaigrette dressing.  The roasted seeds are used in Middle Eastern of halva, a rich sweetmeat as well as in curries.  Medicinally an infusion of the seeds may be taken for flatulence.  This seed can also produce a yellow dye when alum is used as mordant.

Historically it was used to cure just about everything from diabetes to anemia to constipation and stomach issues.  And as a poultice it could treat boils,  wounds and skin ulcers.  More recent scientific study has shown that not all of these old-time remedies were unfounded.  The seeds of Fenugreek container 30% mucilage which makes them a good poultice.  Fenugreek tea is good for stomach issues and constipation because of the same mucilage.

It is in Ethiopia that Fenugreek is used as a treatment for Diabetes.  And studies have shown that Arthritis has a low incidence rate in India where a lot of fenugreek is consumed. Drinking 1 cup of fenugreek tea per day, made from the leaves, is said to relieve the discomfort of arthritis.
Although in early stages of study, several human intervention trials demonstrated that the antidiabetic effects of fenugreek seeds ameliorate most metabolic symptoms associated with type-1 and type-2 diabetes in both humans and relevant animal models by reducing serum glucose and improving glucose tolerance.  Fenugreek is currently available commercially in encapsulated forms and is being prescribed as dietary supplements for the control of hypercholesterolemia and diabetes by practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine. Fenugreek contains high dietary fiber, so a few seeds taken with warm water before going to sleep helps avoiding constipation.


Bengali 5 Spice


·         2/3 cup cumin seeds
·         1/3 cup fennel seeds
·         1/4 cup black mustard seed
·         3 tablespoons dried oregano
·         2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds



Combine the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, oregano, and fenugreek seeks in a non-stick skillet over medium heat; roast the spice mixture until warmed through, about 2 minutes. Spread the spices onto a large platter to cool completely. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.


Butter Chicken

This is a popular East Indian restaurant dish.


·         2 tablespoons vegetable oil
·         2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cubed
·         8 green cardamom pods
·         10 cloves, lightly pounded
·         10 whole black peppercorns
·         1 (1/2 inch) piece cinnamon stick
·         3 serrano peppers
·         2 teaspoons ginger paste
·         2 teaspoons garlic paste
·         1 (15 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
·         1 1/4 cups water
·         1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
·         1 1/2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves
·         1/2 teaspoon salt
·         1 tablespoon butter, softened
·         1/2 cup cream


Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat; cook and stir the chicken in the hot oil until completely browned, about 5 minutes. Set aside.  Wrap cardamom pods, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon stick in cheesecloth and secure with elastic or twist-tie. Blend the serrano peppers, ginger paste, and garlic paste together in a blender until smooth; add the crushed tomatoes and blend again until integrated. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan; add the water, paprika, and the spice bundle to the saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until the volume of the liquid reduces to about half. Add the browned chicken to the liquid and stir. Cover the saucepan and simmer until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, about 15 minutes. Stir the salt and fenugreek seeds into the mixture and continue simmering another 5 minutes. Remove the bundle of spices and discard. Stir the butter and cream into the mixture; simmer until the butter is melted completely, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot.

Jamaican Curry Seasoning


·         1/4 cup whole coriander seeds
·         2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
·         2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
·         2 tablespoons whole anise seeds
·         1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds
·         1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
·         5 tablespoons ground turmeric


Combine the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, anise seeds, fenugreek seeds, and allspice berries in a skillet. Toast over medium heat until the color of the spices slightly darkens, and the spices are very fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove the spices from the skillet, and allow to cool to room temperature. Grind the spices with the turmeric in a spice grinder. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Fenugreek Tea

1 ounce Fenugreek Seeds
1 pint water

Steep the seeds in boiling water for 5  to 7 minutes.  Add honey and a few fresh peppermint leaves to cover the oder and taste.  Use for stomach upset and ulcers, as a laxative and to soothe a sore throat.  Some believe it will lower a fever.


  1. It's a good plant to have in your garden. Tea can really good for everybody. It's a good replacement for coffee.

    Herbal tea

  2. Ahnn -
    I agree that the tea is supurb!

  3. It looks really amazing!! I have to try it!! Thanks for sharing :-)
    sesame seeds
    fennel seeds


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