I first experienced fenugreek in the fresh form as "methi leaf" and I've enjoyed the flavour of this herb ever since.
Fenugreek plants in flower
Probably the Mediterranean.
Fenugreek grows wild from the Mediterranean across Asia to China.
The brownish-yellow seeds of rhombic shape. Indians also like the fresh leaves, which are eaten as a tasty vegetable and prepared like spinach, or dried and used as a flavouring. The leaves of the related plant blue fenugreek, which appears in Central European cooking, can usually be substituted by fenugreek leaves.
Fabaceae (bean family).
Bitter and aromatic, with a leaf fragrance that slightly resembles that of lovage.
The botanical genus name trigonella is a Latinised version of the Greek trigonon "triangle" (from treis "three" and gony "knee" or "angle"), probably referring to the triangular flower shape. The species name foenum graecum means "Greek hay", referring to both the intensive hay fragrance of dried fenugreek and its Eastern Mediterranean origin. Many European languages draw on the Latin name, e.g. English "fenugreek", Dutch fenegriek and Slovak grško seno.
Several Germanic languages refer to "buck's horns clover", e.g. the German bockshornklee, Swedish bockhornsklöver and Norwegian bukkehornkløver, comparing the long, pointed fruits with a buck's horn.
Spanish alholva and Portuguese alforba are derived from the Arabic al-hulbah "fenugreek". This is probably a native Semitic name and related to the name of fenugreek in Hebrew, hilbeh. The names may be derived from the same root hlb "milk" that also lies behind the name of mahaleb cherry. Arabic hulbah is also the source for several names of fenugreek in Far Eastern languages including Malay halba, Chinese hu lu ba and Vietnamese ho lo ba.
Fenugreek is an ancient spice which, although not well known in Europe these days, was grown as a medicinal plant during the Middle Ages in accordance with Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis. Today, many people in Western countries dislike its flavour, which they perceive to be bitter.
Fenugreek is mostly used in Asia and in India it is popular for pickles. Dry roasting can enhance the flavour and reduce bitterness, provided that care is taken not to overheat the seeds. Small amounts of fenugreek are found in all good curry powder. Fenugreek is also popular in South India and appears in the Tamil spice mixture sambaar podi. The bitter-aromatic seeds also constitute an essential part of the Bengali "five spice" mixture panch phoron.
Dried fenugreek leaves appear in the spice mixture from Georgia, khmeli-suneli. In North India they may be used in the yeast bread naan to make methi naan and in South India they are used as a flavouring for potato aloo curries. Iran has a rich tradition of cooking with fenugreek leaves. Among the most famous examples is ghorme sabzi, a thick sauce made from fresh or dried vegetables (leek, onion, occasionally beans) and herbs (fenugreek, parsley, mint, chives and coriander). The sauce acquires a characteristic sour flavour by addition of dried limes. Khoreshte ghorme sabzi is mutton slowly stewed in this aromatic herb sauce.
Fenugreek is also known in Northern and Eastern Africa, with Egyptian papyri mentioning the plant as being necessary for the mummification process. The Ethiopian spice mixture berbere contains small amounts of fenugreek.
The widespread use of this bitter spice in Asia sometimes surprises Western cooks, as culinary use of bitter tasting spices tends to be alien to Western palates, although popular almost everywhere else.