Learn About Greek Herbs and Spices - Fennel Leaves (Maratho)

Fennel and fennel seeds

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Wild fennel is also known as malathro (μάλαθρο, say: MAH-lah-throh). The most commonly used fennel leaves in Greek cooking are fresh, sold in bunches or attached to the root. It is sometimes sold under the name "anise" because of the similarity in tastes, but anise and fennel are different. Dried fennel leaves, flowers, and seeds are also available, packaged in a variety of containers.

Physical Characteristics

Fennel leaves look a lot like fresh dill. The stalks have small feathery dark green leaves. Fennel is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region and grows in the wild in most temperate climate regions. Also worth noting, fennel is actually a flowering plant species in the carrot family. Fennel has a definite anise (or licorice) flavor.

How Fennel Leaves Are Used

Fennel leaves are widely used in Greek cooking both as an herb and as a green. Large quantities are added to stews and ragouts, as well as fricassee dishes and fritters. Fennel is generally used to flavor meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes, and is also an ingredient in delicious savory pies (pites).

Also of interest, the Greeks are not the only ones who enjoy this herb. You can find it widely used in Italy, Germany, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East. Additionally, it’s in the Chinese five-spice powders.

In many parts of India and Pakistan, roasted fennel seeds are consumed as mukhwas, an after-meal digestive and breath freshener.

Lastly, Fennel is one of the plants which is said to be disliked by fleas, and powdered fennel has the effect of driving away fleas from kennels and stables.

Fennel Substitutes

Fresh dill or anise.

Origin, History, and Mythology

Two Internet references suggest that:

  1. The ancient Greeks named the herb "marathon" - derived from the Greek "maraino" (eg: to grow thin). They believed fennel increased one's longevity, strength, and courage.
  2. The ancient Greeks named the herb to commemorate a battle at Marathon (490 BCE) against the Persians that was fought in a field of fennel.

Fennel is an excellent addition to a kitchen or herb garden. Beware: many other herbs and flowers do not like to be planted too close to fennel.

One thing worth noting is that anise and fennel, in general, have a taste reminiscent of black licorice. It is one of those things that if you do not like it, then this herb may become a little too overpowering for you, even if used sparingly. Thus, use it with caution and maybe the most important aspect - make sure whoever will be eating your dish enjoys anise flavoring as it could make or break it.

If you’re a fan of the flavor you will love this herb.