In my kitchen, my immediate go-to masala dabba contains many basic spices: black mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper powder, fenugreek seeds and a cumin-coriander powder blend. The bin in the center holds an assortment of whole spices: whole dried red chillies, dried curry leaves, black peppercorns and a cinnamon stick or two and sometimes whole coriander seeds. Since all these spices will be used in savory preparations, even if they do take on other flavors slightly, it won’t alter the flavor of the dish.
Of these, the most frequently misunderstood and misused spices, is Fenugreek. In a kitchen it occurs in many forms – as whole or powdered seeds, as dried leaves, and in the fridge – as fresh leaves.
Fenugreek seeds are woody and pungent in flavor and can withstand moderately high temperatures. Too many fenugreek seeds will render a dish bitter, so use the specific amount recommended in your recipe. It is best when used as part of the tempering - with the fats so that its flavors develop and sweeten before you add the good stuff. The next time, if you want to add it to a stew, create a separate pot with some ghee or butter, warm it - add less than a teaspoon to it, and let this sizzle on low for 20-30 seconds (not till it becomes brown). Pour the oil, with or without the seeds into your stew. It will flavor your dish well. However, Fenugreek seeds are typically not meant to be the last step/afterthought in a recipe.
Fenugreek seeds are often added to blends as a dried powders, or even on their own, as well as soaked seed paste. The applications are not universal across recipes - you've got to be careful.
Tender fenugreek sprouts, or the first two leaflets arising from the cotyledons are considered a delicacy, and frequently seen in markets in small 4” tall bundles, their roots still clinging to the sandy soil mixture they are grown in.
Fully formed fenugreek leaves (pictured above) are popular in India as an ingredient used in thepla (a spicy griddle fried wheat based flatbread) or as a leafy green, fenugreek leaves are also delicious, in moderation, as one of the final finishing flavors in either fresh or dried form. They hold on to their aroma well. Too many fenugreek leaves added as at this stage in the cooking process however can add an undesirable bitterness.
Fenugreek leaves are also popular additions to daals, and in a steamed dish called 'Methi Wadi', a preparation of fenugreek leaves, chickpea flour and spices.
According to Ayurveda, Fenugreek is considered pungent and bitter, and warming to the body. It is highly recommended for the winter diet ... and a little bit goes a long way. They offer relief to those suffering from arthritis, poor digestive issues and swollen lymph nodes that are inflamed because of a sinus infection. They also are believed to help lactating mothers. The seeds are known to help people with diabetes and high blood pressure.
So, don’t skip it in your recipe just because it tastes bitter - just know the tricks to use it better.
Learn how to use Fenugreek and other popular Indian spices in my global bestseller:
Crack the Code: Cook Any Indian Meal with Confidence,
by Nandita Godbole, foreword by Faye Levy (2016)
Purchase a print copy here
Also available on all eBook sites