Traditionally, fenugreek has been used therapeutically, as well as in food, by people living on the shores of the Mediterranean and in Asia.
Why should I be aware of this?
Fenugreek is used in a very limited manner in Western cuisine. It is a part of curry powder mixes, chutneys especially mango chutney, artificial maple syrup or as maple flavouring, or in spiced vinegar. France grows a small amount of fenugreek.
In the West, fenugreek’s therapeutic use is now largely confined to the treatment of animals, though historically, it has been used in human medicine. The name fenugreek comes from a Latin word meaning 'Greek hay' — an indication of its use as fodder.
In India, it is used in herbal medicines, as a yellow dye, as cattle fodder and since it is a legume, has commercial and food value, along with the winter wheat to rejuvenate the soil. Fenugreek is also an important ingredient in [[panch phoraon], the five spice mix associated with Bengali cuisine.
How does this affect me?
The seeds of the fenugreek plant are known to be great cleansers of the system.
- Digestive disorders -- A teaspoon of fenugreek seeds should be soaked overnight in water. The next morning, the seeds should be eaten and the water drunk. This is a remedy for colic, flatulence, dysentery and dyspepsia.
- Diarrhoea -- Half a teaspoon of seeds with water taken thrice a day is an effective remedy for diarrhoea.
- Anaemia -- The seeds have high iron content and helps alleviate anaemia. They should be consumed in the same manner as for flatulence.
- Stomach disorders -- Some disorders, like peptic ulcers, are also soothed by the consumption of fenugreek seeds.
- Respiratory infections -- During the early acute stages of respiratory tract infections like bronchitis, influenza, sinusitis, catarrh, and suspected pneumonia, fenugreek tea will help the body to perspire, dispel toxicity and shorten the period of fever.
- Sore throat --A strong gargle made by boiling 2 tablespoons of seeds with one litre of water for an hour, letting it cool a little and then using it to gargle is effective for easing a sore throat.
- Diabetes --Fenugreek has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of diabetes. According to research studies conducted at the National Institute of Nutrition at Hyderabad in India, fenugreek seeds when given in varying doses of 25gms to 100gms daily, diminish reactive hyperglycaemia in diabetic patients. Levels of glucose, serum cholesterol and triglycerides were also significantly reduced.
- High blood cholesterol --Fenugreek seeds are considered a cholesterol lowering food. Fenugreek seeds are a rich source of the polysaccharide 'galactomannan', which helps in reducing cholesterol levels.
- Sexual weakness -- Fenugreek is also considered a tonic for the reproductive system.
- Menstrual and menopausal disorders -- Fenugreek contains chemicals similar to oestrogen and helps to minimise the symptoms of menopause.
- Pregnancy and lactation -- The seeds made into gruel and given to lactating mothers increase the flow of breast milk.
- Dandruff -- Fenugreek seed paste applied to the scalp is an effective remedy for dandruff. Fenugreek seed paste mixed with yogurt makes an excellent hair conditioner.
- Skin --It also is an excellent face pack and facial skin rejuvenator.
- Feminine hygiene -- Fenugreek taken internally, as a tea and as a douche, helps maintain feminine hygiene. It provides effective relief for vaginal discharges like leucorrhoea. The douche may be made in the same way as a gargle. In north Africa, the seeds were traditionally used to help women develop voluptuous figures. In order to achieve this, they were given a diet supplement of fenugreek flour, olive oil and caster (superfine) sugar.
- Others --Bad breath and body odor may be combated by drinking fenugreek seed tea.
All about fenugreek
Fenugreek is a leguminous plant belonging to the pea family. The seeds are oval, flat, very hard and mid-brown in colour. Exceedingly bitter to the taste, the seeds are most often used roasted, ground and then used as flavouring in curries.
The leaves are also used as a vegetable and as a flavouring herb. Fenugreek leaves have a strong flavour and smell and are used in Turkey, some Arabian countries and in India.
In India, every part of the fenugreek plant is used. Since it has a short growing season, that is the late winter and early spring months in north India, it is used both fresh as a leafy green vegetable and dried for the time that it is not available. The leaves, both fresh and dried, are used in meat curries, dal, vegetable dishes and chutneys. In the winter months, an amalgam of leafy greens is cooked together, of which fenugreek greens are an integral part.
As a dried herb, it is used to flavour the classical Mughlai dish Butter Chicken or Murgh Makhani. The dried fenugreek gives its luscious tomato gravy a unique flavour. It is also one of the ingredients in the making of khakhra, a type of griddle-cooked, whole wheat, crispbread from Gujarat, India. It is an ingredient of ''panchphoron'', the Indian five-spice mixture from Bengal and Orissa. The roasted ground seeds are infused as a coffee substitute or adulterant.
Elsewhere, fenugreek is used to flavour Ethiopian, Turkish, Yemenese, Iranian and Egyptian food. In Egypt, fenugreek seeds are prepared as tea by infusing the seeds in hot water.
The major use of fenugreek is in curry powders, figuring in many mixtures, especially vindaloo from Sri Lanka. Many chutneys and pickles incorporate it and it gives a tangy aroma to vegetables.
Though fenugreek is generally considered safe to consume, its safety is not well-documented for use in small children, lactating women, or persons with liver or kidney disease.
- Asthma and diabetes -- The herb has caused aggravated asthma symptoms and has lowered blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. An intake of fenugreek seeds can cause blood sugar to drop to very low levels.
- Skin and gastric -- Frequent topical use of fenugreek preparations may cause skin irritation. Swelling of the body, numbness and wheezing may be caused. Large doses (over 100g per day) may cause gastric reactions like diarrhoea, nausea and flatulence.
- Pregnancy and lactation -- Fenugreek may, when taken in larger amounts than are used to season foods, cause contractions of the uterus. For this reason, women who are pregnant should avoid large doses.
- Interactions with other medication -- Fenugreek can act as a blood thinner and should not be used along with medicine like heparin, warfarin and ticlopidine, which also act as blood thinners and reduce clotting effects. This may result in bleeding. One of the more dramatic side-effects of fenugreek intake is lowered blood sugar. If consumed, especially in the case of people already consuming drugs such as insulin, it should only be done under the observance of a medical practitioner and with drug dosages modified for this impact. Since fenugreek has a high mucilage content, it can alter the absorption of any oral medication. Corticosteroid and other hormone treatments may be less effective.
References and Useful Websites
- Larousse Gastronomique
- The Book of Ingredients, by Philip Dowell and Adrian Bailey; Penguin/Mermaid Books 1993
- Indian Spices and Condiments as Natural Healers, by Dr. H.K. Bakhru; Jaico Books
- Herbs and Breastfeeding
- All About Fenugreek
- Encyclopedia of spices -- Fenugreek
- fenugreek and health
- Please read Dr. Ruth Lawrence's article Herbs and Breastfeeding on  for more information on fenugreek for lactating mothers and others.