Fenugreek is from the pea family (a legume). It’s used as an herb, sprout or seed. It’s known in Latin as trigonella foenum-graecum or Greek hay. It dates back to the 14th century, when the ancient Egyptians used it in embalming mummies, and the Greeks used it as fodder for cattle.
Fenugreek is native to Western Europe and North Africa, where it is used as a medicinal herb. It is widely prevalent in the Mediterranean region and known by many names like Abish, Hilbeh, Cemen, and Trigonelle. In Chinese medicine it is known as Hu Lu Ba. We know it as methi, mendhiyam, vendhayam, or uluva in Indian cuisine.
As a new mother, I had a steady diet of fenugreek in all of its forms. The seeds were soaked and ground into menthiya dosa. I had uluva kanji for breakfast (porridge with sprouted seeds) and a bhaji (vegetable) of fresh sauteed methi leaves. Most dishes had a bitter aftertaste. Over the years I had watched my grandmother and mom use methi in the treatment of various ailments as a home remedy. Now fenugreek plays an important role in my kitchen too.
Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com.
Benefits of Fenugreek
Lactation in Nursing Mothers
Fenugreek helps boost the production of milk in lactating mothers.
Prevention of Heart Disease
Fenugreek serves as an antioxidant and helps prevent heart disease. According to research from the Biochemistry department of Kerala University, the mucilage in fenugreek helps lower bad cholesterol (LDL and triglycerides.) It prevents the hardening of the arteries, and prevents fat deposits on the arterial walls.
My grandmother used the powdered methi seeds as a topical cream. This paste was dabbed on infected wounds, boils, burns and on mouth sores.
My uncle who was asthmatic was given fenugreek tea. According to Chinese medicine, fenugreek is a phlegm remover. It reduces the mucus in an infected lung, thereby helping an asthmatic patient to breathe easy. It is a natural expectorant as contains musilagins, thereby alleviating cough and congestion.
My mom used fenugreek quite frequently in her diet. She would make menthiya kuzhambu (a flavorful tamarind sauce with fenugreek), methi theplas (bread), vendhaya sambar and more. She said that it helped to lower her blood sugar and kept her diabetes in check. According to diabeteshealth.com fenugreek helps to increase blood insulin receptors. It stimulates insulin secretion and helps in the proper utilization of glucose. Dr. Sharma in the Nutrition Research Journal writes about the benefits of fenugreek to diabetic patients who were given 100 gms of fenugreek a day. It helped moderate and control blood glucose levels.
For Sexual Performance
Fenugreek is also used as an aphrodisiac. It is said to increase the levels of testosterone, prevent erectile dysfunction, impotence and hernia in men. In women it is used as a natural hormone balancer. In ancient Arab harems, women consumed fenugreek to enlarge their breasts. It was a lot cheaper than breast implants!
As Beauty Treatments
The Egyptians and Greeks used fenugreek as a remedy for bad breath, in beauty creams, as a dandruff remover and an air freshener. My grandmother made fenugreek infused hair oil to add glossiness. She also made facepacks with fenugreek powder and yogurt for a clear smooth skin.
Other Medicinal Uses
Fenugreek is known to reduce kidney disorders, liver ailments, gastrointestinal disease (dyspepsia) and in reducing edema. It is not recommended for pregnant women as it induces labor. It also has anti-carcinogenic properties, to fight cancer.
It is advisable to consult a doctor on dosage and intake of fenugreek as it is quite potent and has side effects if used in excess.
We are familiar with methi in an Indian kitchen. It gives out a sweetish aroma when heated and is used prominently in the South Indian thakkaali thokku (tomato sauce), and the North Indian aloo methi. Fenugreek seeds are used as imitation vanilla and maple syrup. It is used in baked breads and marinades.
Fenugreek is used in cuisines around the world. Here are a few recipes from Georgia (Eurasia) and Ethiopia.
(Sources: “Nutritional Healing” by Philip Balch; “The Indian Spice Kitchen” by Monisha Bharadwaj; article by Dr. Richard Palmquist: “Fenugreek: A Food or a Medicine?”; www.foodreference.com; gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com)
Khmeli-Suneli (Georgian Herb Mix)
This mix is used in stews and soups, and in a famous walnut sauce called Satsivi.
Mix a tablespoon of each of the following: dried marjoram, dried dill, dried savory (an herb), dried mint, dried parsley, ground coriander, dried fenugreek leaves, ground fenugreek seeds, and ½ Tbsp ground black pepper, 2 crushed bay leaves. Keep in an airtight container.
Satsivi (Walnut Sauce)
This sauce can be used as a dip or served as a dressing for grilled eggplant.
1 tbsp butter
1 small yellow onion chopped fine
3 cloves garlic minced
1 ½ tsp all purpose flour
1 cup of vegetable stock
1 tbsp Khmeli Suneli spice mix (recipe above)
1 tsp paprika
1½ tbsp vinegar
1 cup walnuts ground to smooth paste
salt and red pepper to taste.
Heat the butter in a sauce pan and saute the chopped onion and garlic. Sprinkle the flour and mix well to cook the flour. Add the paprika, Khmeli Suneli mix, vegetable stock, salt, cayenne and vinegar. Lower the heat and stir in the walnut paste. Check seasoning and serve.
Berbere (Ethiopian/Eritrean Spice Mix)
This spice rub can be used to spice up pan fried potatoes or cassava, or a bowl of lentils.
Dry roast the following and powder it into a dry spice mix.
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
½ tsp. black peppercorns
¼ tsp. whole allspice
4 whole cloves
2 tbsp. sweet paprika
1 tbsp. hot paprika
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. kosher salt
tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
tsp. ground cinnamon
Ye Misir Wot (Spicy Ethiopian Lentils)
1 cup split masoor dhal
1 cup split masoor dhal
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp garlic minced
1 tsp fresh ginger minced
1 red onion minced
2 tbsp Berbere spice mix
2 tomatoes pureed
Salt to taste
Heat the butter and saute the garlic, onions and ginger till brown, Add the tomato puree, berbere, lentils and about 2 cups of water and cook until the lentils are mushy. Add salt to taste. Serve warm with injera, dosa or rotis.