Fenugreek is a plant whose leaves are used as an herb and its seeds as a spice. It is common in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, where its leaves and seeds are used to flavor stews and curries.
What Is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek is a clover-like plant from the botanical family Fabaceae, which also includes alfalfa, chickpeas and peanuts. Its dried or fresh leaves can be used as an herb, and its seeds are used as a spice. Both its seeds and leaves impart a flavor and aroma similar to maple syrup, as well as slight bitterness. It is also used as a flavoring agent in foods, drinks and tobacco.
What Does It Taste Like?
Biting into raw fenugreek seeds or leaves will produce an overpowering bitterness. But when added to dishes and cooked, fenugreek imparts a sweet, slightly nutty, maple-syrup-like flavor, reminiscent of burnt sugar.
Cooking With Fenugreek
In the U.S., where fenugreek isn't widely grown, it's the seeds that are most readily available. And the first thing to know about cooking with fenugreek seeds is that the seeds themselves are highly bitter and extremely hard.
With some spices, like peppercorns, cumin seed and coriander seed, toasting can help to balance out the bitterness by activating other essential oils in the spice. But with fenugreek, toasting won't get rid of the bitterness. You need to soak the seeds overnight. The bitterness won't entirely go away, but it'll be diminished, while also softening the seeds so that they won't break anyone's teeth.
If you can obtain fenugreek leaves, you can use them to finish sauces, curries, vegetable dishes, and soups, particularly ones with a fatty base, such as yogurt, butter or cream. The dried leaves also work well in marinades for fish and seafood.
The seeds can be used whole, in which case soak them first, or ground and used in spice blends or dry rubs. Garam masala is one common spice blend that features fenugreek. When cooking with fenugreek, it can help to balance out the bitterness by adding a squeeze of lemon juice at the end of cooking.
Recipes With Fenugreek
When it comes to substitutes, there's no single ingredient that will provide both the bitterness and the sweet maple flavor of fenugreek. Therefore, you'll have to double up. A bit of maple syrup plus some mustard powder or mustard greens can do the trick. But be careful not to add too much maple syrup, or your dish may end up tasting like dessert. And remember that both curry powder and garam masala often contain fenugreek, so you could also substitute those. Fennel seed, combined with mustard seed, is another good substitute, and Chinese mustard leaves will impart a similar bitterness, though none of the sweetness, of fenugreek leaves.
Uses of Fenugreek
Fenugreek has been used in folk medicine, such as to promote lactation in nursing mothers, to treat digestive disorders, and for other reasons, but there is no clinical evidence to support any such uses, nor is it approved for any such uses by any governmental agency. Indeed, the use of fenugreek as a medicine is known to have a number of harmful effects. It has been linked to birth defects, liver toxicity, and it may interfere with certain medications. In general, fenugreek may not be safe in quantities higher than it occurs in food.
Where to Buy Fenugreek
Fenugreek isn't easy to find in the U.S. unless you live near an Asian market, or specifically an Indian market. And even in these cases, it's usually the seeds that you'll find, although these stores will sometimes carry frozen fenugreek leaves. Both the dried seeds and dried leaves can be purchased online.
The dried leaves and dried seeds can be stored along with your other dried spices, tightly sealed and away from heat and moisture. They'll keep for a few months this way. If a recipe calls for ground or crushed fenugreek seeds, it's best to purchase the whole seeds and only crush or grind what you need, rather than purchasing the preground powder, as the latter will lose its potency quickly, and you'll only use small amounts of fenugreek at a time.