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FenugreekTrigonella foenum-graecum of the pea family (Fabaceae), also known as Greek hay.


An erect two to three foot tall annual herb with light green leaves and small white flowers. The seed pods contain ten to twenty small, flat, yellow-brown, pungent, aromatic seeds to a pod. The seeds have a strong aroma and somewhat bitter taste, variously described as similar to celery, maple syrup, or burnt sugar.

Fenugreek is native to southern Europe, the Mediterranean region and Western Asia. It is cultivated from western Europe to China for the aromatic seeds and is still grown for fodder in parts of Europe and northern Africa. It is an indispensable ingredient in Indian curries.


Fenugreek has a long history as both a culinary and medicinal herb in the ancient world. It was one of the spices the Egyptians used for embalming and the Greeks and Romans used it for cattle fodder (hence the Latin foenum graecum meaning Greek hay). It was grown extensively in the imperial gardens of Charlemagne.

Purchasing, Handling and Storage:

Store in a cool, dry place for maximum of 6 months. Should be roasted before use to reduce bitterness.

Culinary Uses:

Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste, so the seeds are usually roasted and ground before use to mellow the bitterness. The seeds are very hard and difficult to grind, a mortal and pestle working best. Fenugreek is a favorite in Northern African and Middle Eastern dishes and is one of the few spices that is usually used in powdered form even in Indian curries. Seed extract is used in imitation vanilla, butterscotch and rum flavorings and is the main flavoring in imitation maple syrup. Also used in breads in Egypt and Ethiopia. Ground seeds and / or leaves, can give a nice lift to some bland vegetarian dishes. Also good in marinades. Generally, a nice unusual flavor to experiment with to achieve some different effects. Use very young shoots with only a few leaves and some watercress for a nice salad addition. Fenugreek seeds are also used in candy, baked goods, ice cream, chewing gum and soft drinks. The seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.


Rich in vitamins and minerals, and because it is a seed and a legume, it is high in protein (which makes it very useful in vegetarian diets).

Other Uses:

Formerly used as a yellow dye. The leaves are dried and used as an insect repellent in grain storage. In various areas of North Africa the seeds (ground into a paste) were traditionally eaten by women to gain weight, in combination with sugar and olive oil. The seeds are still used for weight gain in Libya and other areas. They are also an important source of diosgenin, which is widely used in the production of steroids (which probably accounts for the weight gain), sex hormones, oral contraceptives and veterinary medicines.

Chef James EhlerThis article is from Chef James Ehler of Key West, Florida.

James is a webmaster, cook, chef, writer and (like me) a self-confessed computer nerd. He is the former executive chef of Martha's Steak & Seafood Restaurant and the former Reach Hotel (both in Key West), the Hilton Hotel in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the New Bern Golf and Country Club, North Carolina.

He is now webmaster and cook at the Blue Heaven Restaurant in Key West while he works on his Food Encyclopedia (five years so far). It is well worth paying a visit to James' food reference website which is a useful resource well worth Bookmarking - to visit either website just click on their title:

The Food Reference Website
The Blue Heaven Restaurant, Key West, Florida

© James T. Ehler, 2001
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