Edible Plants: Fenugreek; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Fenugreek is an herb that dates back to ancient times when it was predominantly used as a medicinal herb and condiment. Nowadays fenugreek has numerous uses, both in the food industry and for pharmaceutical products.

Fenugreek is one of the oldest and most useful herbs known to man. In fact, archaeologists have dated, fenugreek using radiocarbon dating, to around 4000 BC, after remains of the herb where discovered in Tell Halal, Iraq. We also know that the ancient Egyptians consumed fenugreek and used it to prepare kuphi, a type of incense used to embalm their dead. Fenugreek also holds significance in the Jewish religion because Jewish defenders of Jerusalem, during the first Jewish-Roman war, combined fenugreek with boiling oil and used it to repel invaders from the city walls. The idea being that the gooey concoction would make the Romans loose their footing. Fenugreek or not, Jerusalem was ultimately besieged and conquered by the Emperor Titus in AD 70.

Since ancient times in Africa and the Middle East woman have been know to gorge themselves on a mixture of sugar, olive oil and fenugreek in order to gain weight. The practice, originally used by harem woman, was thought to help promote the growth of larger, fuller breasts. The tradition has survived up until recent times and was most prominent in Libya and Eritrea.

The name “fenugreek” is derived from the plant's Latin name Trigonella foenum graecum, which means ‘Greek hay‘. This is because the Greeks have a tradition of adding fenugreek to inferior quality hay for livestock. The Latin word Trigonella, meaning “angle,” either refers to the shape of this plants seeds or its flowers.

Fenugreek is the fruit of an herbaceous, hardy, annual plant native to Southeastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent. The fenugreek plant produces tiny, yellow or white aromatic flowers in late summer. After the flowers have bloomed, long thin seed pods containing at least ten brownish, yellow seeds appear. The plant gives of a fragrant aroma, similar to clover, to which fenugreek is related, and evocative of vanilla.

Culinary Uses of Fenugreek: Originally fenugreek was prized primarily for its medicinal uses and as a condiment. However, fenugreek has always been an integral ingredient in Indian cuisine, specifically curries and also to flavor mango chutney. Roasted fenugreek seeds are sometimes used in India as a substitute for coffee and fenugreek leaves are used as a vegetable. Fenugreek is also an ingredient in the Jewish version of halva or halvah, a delectable confectionary made throughout the Middle East and Asia. Fenugreek seeds are either ground or whole and there is also sprouted seeds. Sprouted fenugreek seeds are seeds that have been put in a moist, dark place for a number of days and allowed to sprout. They are an excellent ingredient for salads and are eaten in many African countries as a vegetable. Along with the leaves, they are also used to make an herbal tea.

The Nutritional and Medicinal Value of Fenugreek: Both traditional Chinese and European folk medicine has long promoted the use of fenugreek seeds for a number of ailments including kidney problems, male reproductive disorders, stomach complaints and diabetes. Fenugreek is thought to be an aphrodisiac, lactogenic, laxative, expectorant, astringent and diuretic. Modern science does not yet fully understand the curative and healing properties of fenugreek but researchers may have found some answers.

Extract of fenugreek seed was found to have hypoglycemic activity in diabetic mice and contains compounds that act like insulin. Those who take insulin should therefore be careful as fenugreek may conflict with their medication. Fenugreek also contains mucilage, a glutinous substance found in many plants. Mucilage often contains tannic acid, which has antioxidant activity. However its thought that mucilage may also prevent absorption of prescription drugs. Researchers at the United Arab Emirates demonstrated that certain compounds in fenugreek seeds inhibited growth and in some cases destroyed breast cancer cells in animal studies.

Fenugreek is a good source of protein and the mineral potassium. This herb contains antioxidants including vitamin C and B complex vitamins. As with many medicinal plants, Fenugreek is a source of photochemicals known as flavonols. The flavonols in fenugreek are quecetin and rutin. These two flavonols or phenols work together and have powerful antioxidant properties. They are anticancer and help neutralize harmful free radicals. Rutin is anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective and helps lower LDL or bad cholesterol.

Fenugreek also contains the phytochemical known as coumarin. Coumarin is a fragrant compound used in the production of anticoagulent drugs in the pharmaceutical industry. Whilst coumarins have antioxidant and anticancer activity, they are also toxic to the liver and kidneys in excessive amounts. Another compound in fenugreek is diosgenin. Diosgenin is a type of steroid sapogenin that is also used in the pharmaceutical industry for the production of sex hormones and oral contraceptive pills. 

Primary image, fenugreek seeds, flickr.com. Above image fenugreek, image credit; photobucket.com.


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