Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Fenugreek is the small, hard seed of a bean relative, Trigonella foenumgraecum, that’s native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Its name comes from the Latin for “Greek hay.” Fenugreek is somewhat bitter and has a very distinctive sweet aroma, reminiscent of dry hay as well as maple syrup and caramel, that comes from a chemical called sotolon, which is also an important volatile in molasses, barley malt, coffee, soy sauce, cooked beef, and sherry. The outer cell layer of the fenugreek seed contains a water-soluble storage carbohydrate (galactomannan), so that when the seeds are soaked, they exude a thick, mucilaginous gel that gives a pleasant slipperiness to some Middle-Eastern sauces and condiments (Yemen’s hilbeh). Fenugreek is a component of various spice mixtures, including Ethiopian berber and some Indian curry powders.