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Fenugreek (Recipe: saag paneer) {vegetarian}


I love spring cleaning.

In my house, spring cleaning gets underway not in April or May, but when there's a snowstorm, the kind that strands me at the end of our uphill driveway while I wait for extrication by the plow guy. This winter, we've seen only a few random snowflakes, but a recent heavy rain triggered the urge to get the cleanout started.

My favorite thing about spring cleaning is that I find stuff. Hidden stuff. Long-lost stuff. Forgotten stuff. Last week, I found:

  • The Food of India, a lovely cookbook that still bears its Costco sale sticker (I lose all self-control in the under-$10 cookbook aisle). It was on the bottom of a pile of books on the floor next to my bed, along with Bill Buford's Heat, some books about art, and a trashy legal thriller or two.
  • A jar of fenugreek seeds, misplaced three layers deep in the back of the spice rack behind the cinnamon and nutmeg.

Though fenugreek is popular in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Egypt, Turkey, Armenia and Yemen, it's curry — and curiosity — that brought fenugreek to my pantry. Indian cooking is not my forte; I'm much more comfortable poking around in the cuisines of other parts of Asia. So I'm learning, and starting to stock my Indian pantry.

Fenugreek seeds, which look a bit like kibble, come from a plant in the bean family, native to western Asia and southeastern Europe. A key ingredient in Indian pickles and chutneys, fenugreek's aroma is actually what we think of as the aroma of hot curry and vindaloo blends; a poor-quality curry will smell harsh if it contains too much fenugreek.

An essential ingredient of panch phoron, the Indian five-spice powder, as well as Ethiopian berbere, fenugreek pairs well with fish, legumes, potatoes and tomatoes. Dry-roasting the seeds just slightly gives them a nutty, somewhat maple-sugar taste; in fact, fenugreek is used in the commercial production of artificial maple syrup. You can steep the seeds in hot water to make a tea, or grind roasted seeds and infuse as a coffee substitute.

In ancient times, fenugreek was heralded as both an aphrodisiac and a cure for baldness. In the modern kitchen, it's a cure for blandness.

Saag paneer

Paneer (cheese) is easy to make at home, and even easier to buy in an Indian market. Or, you can substitute extra-firm tofu in this recipe from The Food of India, by Priya Wickramasinghe and Carol Selva Rajah. Serves 4.


1 lb spinach leaves or baby spinach
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
5 garlic cloves, chopped
7 oz canned chopped tomatoes
3/4 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp garam masala
8 oz paneer (or extra-firm tofu), cubed


Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling water for 2 minutes, then refresh in cold water, drain, and very finely chop. Place a small frying pan over low heat and dry-roast the cumin until aromatic. Remove, dry-roast the coriander, then the fenugreek.

Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan over low heat, and fry the onion, garlic, cumin, coriander and fenugreek until grown and aromatic. Stir in the tomato, ginger and garam masala, and bring to the boil. Add spinach and cook until the liquid has reduced. Fold in the paneer (or tofu), trying to keep it in whole pieces. Stir gently until heated through. Season with salt, to taste.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

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Fenugreek is, incidentally, good for gas... and I learned that it's not difficult to over-roast them (they get quite hard and you can't bite them).

Great, warm flavor...

This reminds me of my student days in Madison — I was very cash strapped — and whenever friends moved away, they would give me the contents of their cupboards. I got a lot of exotic ingredients that way, a lot of stuff purchased in bulk and transferred to glass jars. Don't think I ever got fenugreek, but I still wonder what the pennyroyal was for. Thanks for the memories...

I have a small glass jar of over-dry roasted whole fenugreek seeds. They are hard as pebbles. I will follow Lydia's good example and spring clean, then pick up some fresher seeds at the Indian grocery store in Central Square, Cambridge. I wish all Americans had Indian grocery stores to haunt. If I am in a hurry, I can purchase ghee rather than preparing it myself. Also, Paneer, fresh grated coconut, absolutely fresh herbs and spices, lovely mint, and even nan. We can have Indian feasts without cooking for two days!

Paul, I never knew that about the fenugreek-gas connection. Thanks!

Mimi, pennyroyal? What on earth did you cook with that?! This doesn't happen to me much anymore, but it used to be that if I didn't label the glass jars, I would end up with mystery seasonings that I couldn't even identify by the scent. I'm a bit better cook now, so I'm better at solving those mysteries.

Candy, you are so lucky to live near the Central Square Indian grocery. Their products are truly extraordinary.

Pennyroyal is an old flea treatment for pets. It can be sprinkled on their beds and is supposed to repel fleas. Pennyroyal oil can also be used for the same purpose. I'm not sure if it is edible or not. Cheers!

oho! glad to help facilitate yet one more jar in your pantry!
saag paneer is my absolute favorite Indian dish... you'll notice that every single time I make up a curry of my own, it has paneer in it ;-)

as to pennyroyal, wasn't that used in "the old days" as a tincture by ladies who had "gotten themselves in trouble" (ifyouknowwhatimean) and no longer wanted to be in trouble anymore??

I never found a use for the pennyroyal, but yes, I've heard it was used to — uh, get ladies out of trouble. I never knew about the pet connection. The friend who gave it to me had a cat so perhaps...

June, Ann, Mimi: I've absolutely got to hit the books now, to see if there's any culinary use for pennyroyal. We don't have pets at the moment, but I'm glad to know of the flea repelling properties. And as for the other...uh...repellant, for 'female troubles,' I'll file that under "I learn the neatest things from Pantry readers." Thanks, ladies!

I fell for this same cookbook at my own Costco. It's really beautiful for the price.

Love love fenugreek! I end up using it in only very miniscule amounts in some dals and curries, but their presence is unmistakable. Thanks for introducing me to lots of other uses for fenugreek.

Pennyroyal is very toxic, so unlikely to have been used in cooking. I've only heard of it as a remedy for fleas. Some people made fabric flea collars for their pets, stuffing them with pennyroyal to keep the fleas at bay.

isn't there a Nirvana song about "Pennyroyal Tea"? I looked into it and apparently an infusion of it is safe to ingest in "restricted quantities," whatever that means...

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