Today I’m talking with Ian Hemphill from Herbies Spices about a less commonly used spice called fenugreek. Botanically Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek is a legume, which means it’s part of the bean family. The seed’s characteristic bitter flavour is used as an important balance to the sweetness of other spices in Indian and African cooking and its leaves are a delicious cut-and-come-again addition to stir fries and vegetable curries. Fenugreek is a great plant for beginner gardeners and those without much space.
Fenugreek is native to the western part of Asia through to the Mediterranean. Although you can grow fenugreek from seed, if you try and germinate seed from a spice packet you’re unlikely to have much success, as these seeds have been selected for flavour, not seed germination viability and they may have also been treated to remove surface bacteria. Many Indian grocery shops sell fresh fenugreek seeds which is also called ‘methi’. In Arab countries and Israel it’s called halbah/helbah.
Soak the seeds in water overnight and then sow in pots by scattering them over the surface and covering them with a thin 0.5cm (1/4 inch) layer of potting soil. You can plant from spring through to early autumn/fall) but if you’re in a frosty area, wait until after the last frost. Seed germinates quite quickly in 2-7 days and looks a bit like clover when it’s small.
The fenugreek will grow into an annual bushy plant about 60cm (2ft) tall. The leaves are soft, have three lobes. Fenugreek prefers a well-drained slightly acid to neutral soil and grows best in full sun. It grows in most climate zones during summer, however in hotter areas, grow fenugreek for its leaves during the cooler months (like coriander/cilantro), otherwise it will bolt quickly to seed and the leaves will also become bitter after hot days.
As fenugreek is a legume, it doesn’t need rich soil and you can also use it as a green manure crop to add nitrogen to the soil, by turning the plants back into the soil after you’ve harvested the seed pods.
Within about 3-4 weeks the seedlings are 140mm (6 inches) high and this is when you can harvest them as fenugreek microgreens or sprouts, by either cutting them or pulling them out by the roots. If you cut them, they will grow back more thickly. Use your fenugreek greens in salads, stir fries, boiled up into soup with other vegetables and spices or in spicy methi paratha (Indian fenugreek-leaf pancakes). The leaves are not usually bitter like the seeds.
You can also dry the harvested leaves.
You can also sow seeds into a sunny spot in the garden to grow into full-sized plants for their seeds. Watch out for crickets, snails and slugs which love to chomp on the leaves when they’re small. Keep it well watered on hot days and use a half strength fertiliser once a week to get it growing strongly.
The plant looks a bit like tall clover and the leaves are quite aromatic – on warm days they smell like maple syrup. By mid-late summer they will produce white-yellow pea flowers and then develop long, narrow bean-like pods (3cm long x 3mm wide) with the fenugreek seeds inside. The seeds are very hard and have pyramidal shape.
Remove the seeds from the pods and store them in a dry, dark place.
1. Dry roast fenugreek seeds in an open frypan but be very careful not to over-roast them as you will make them so bitter it’s inedible. remove them from the heat as soon as you notice a roasting aroma. Grind the seed into powder with a mortar and pestle before adding during cooking. But don’t forget to save some unroasted seeds for your next crop!
2. Very surprisingly, an extract of fenugreek is used as flavouring of substitute in artificial maple syrup. Open a jar of fenugreek and smell the aroma! To make a maple syrup substitute, soak a quarter cup of fenugreek seeds in 1 cup of water for several hours. Then boil the water and stir in quarter cup of honey.
3. Quick pea curry – use fresh green peas and cook them up with a small amount of curry powder and a handful of dried or fresh fenugreek leaves, or add them to fried potato (aloo methi).
4. Use your ground fenugreek seeds in a wide variety of Indian and northern African recipes, like this delicious Ethiopian Vegetable Bowl.
5. Fenugreek tea, made from an infusion of the seeds, is supposed to be good for the blood and eating fenugreek reputedly has many other health benefits.
[Get lots more info from Ian by listening to the podcast!]