Fenugreek a.k.a. Methi
The plant known as Fenugreek is widely used all over the Indian sub-continent, where it is known as Methi. All parts of the plant are used and it is consumed both as a vegetable, and also as an herb and spice seasoning in all sorts of recipes. It is till not commonly used by Western cooks, but it is becoming increasingly more widely available and is well worth investigating for use in your own recipes.
What is Fenugreek / Methi?
Fenugreek is an herbaceous plant with the scientific name Trigonella foenum-graecum. The ‘Foenum-graecum’ part of the name means “Greek-Hay’, and, although the plant was known to the Greeks, and also the Romans (who apparently used it to flavor wine), it is nowadays most widely associated with Indian cuisine.
It is sometimes consumed as a vegetable ingredient, with the leaves being cooked into various dishes as one might use, say, spinach, and the seeds are also sprouted and used in cold salad like preparations. Chiefly, though, it used as a flavoring herb, or spice, with all parts, both fresh, dried, and powdered being used in different ways, and with different effect.
How to Purchase Methi
Here you cans a closeup of a sprig of leaves taken from the bunch of fresh Fenugreek in the very first picture. In appearance, it looks quite a bit like Watercress, with the texture being similar, and the taste sharing some similarities as well. Once purchased as a bunch, it will keep, if refrigerated in a crisper compartment for several days before it starts to wilt beyond use.
Buying and using the leaves dried is considerably more convenient than using the fresh variety and they are much more widely available. Above you can see a typical commercially packaged product (the Peacock Brand is the type I buy most frequently). It is labeled ‘Kasoori Methi’, meaning ‘Dried Fenugreek Leaf’, but you will also see it spelled ‘Kasuri Methi’ on some products.
Here you can see some the dried leaf after being removed from the package. The dried form will never have the bright green color of the fresh article, but you should try and purchase only leaves that are still somewhat fresh in appearance. The ones shown are above are not too old, but if you open a package and see faded, almost grayish leaves you should avoid buying it as the flavor will have diminished as well.
Fenugreek Seed is frequently used in spice blends for flavoring a wide range of dishes, including Curries and the like. The whole seed can be used, but it is commonly ground to a powder as shown on the right, and it can be purchased in both forms. Normally, I suggest that home-cooks always by spices whole and grind as needed for use, as they tend to lose flavor much more quickly after being ground. That being said, Powdered Fenugreek Seed actually manages to remain its potency quite well.
As you can see, the seeds of the Fenugreek plant are very irregular in shape. The ones above are all from the same batch, but there is also a fair variety in the size, with these ones being in the small to mid-size range. The seeds are also quite hard. If added whole while cooking, they may soften considerably when sufficient liquid is used along with a reasonably long cooking time, but they can also remain hard in the finished dish.
What does Fenugreek / Methi Taste Like?
As with herbs in general, the flavor and aroma is much more concentrated in the dried form than when fresh. The aroma of the dried leaf is quite unique and is a bit like an earthy, slightly tangy green tea with a very warm aromatic quality reminiscent of maple syrup. Some describe it as being somewhat bitter in taste but I have never found it to add any bitterness to any dish I have. The dominant flavor, in my experience, is always the pleasant maple component, which is derives from a molecule in the plant called Sotolon.
In the fresh state, the leaves have very little aroma. There is a somewhat earthy, generally herbaceous smell but the ‘maple’ notes are very faint indeed. When tasted raw, the leaves do have a level of bitterness that is not apparent in the fried form. It is not astringent by any means, rather on the bitterness level of dandelion greens, for example, and there is a passing similarity to watercress. The maple taste is apparent in the very background but, possibly because of the bitter quality, it does not have the same ‘warmth’ that typifies this aromatic component in the dried form.
As for the seeds, the aroma is quite like the dried leaf and in taste has the same essential qualities of the aroma with an added ‘nuttiness’ that works very well as a spice flavoring, either alone or in blends.
Using Fenugreek / Methi in Recipes
Methi is sometimes used fresh as a vegetable component of cooked dishes. The Bengali-style Aloo Methi, or Potatoes with Fenugreek shown above is a popular example.
In the above recipe for Methi Masala Chicken, Kasoori Methi, or dried Fenugreek leaves are used in a spice Chicken pieces before roasting.
Whole Fenugreek Seeds are a standard component in the traditional Bengali five-spice blend known as Panch Phoron.
Ground Fenugreek seeds are a common addition to a whole range of Curry Powders, including one of the more well-known varieties, Madras Curry Powder.