Fenugreek is native to the southern Mediterranean and India but is now also grown in Morocco, Pakistan and South America. In classical times it was first used as cattle fodder and continues to be so used today in the East and as a soil renovator – it restores nitrogen to the soil. The name fenugreek is derived from the Latin foenum-graecum meaning Greek hay, reflecting its use as fodder. Fenugreek was an essential part of the spiced preservatives used by the ancient Egyptians when embalming their dears departed.
Fenugreek seeds are hard, like tiny pebbles, yellow-brown and angular. They are available as whole seeds, crushed or ground. Their aroma is strong, aromatic and somewhat spicy leading to their heavy use to bulk up inferior commercial curry powders. It tastes aromatic with a bitter aftertaste. Fenugreek is a popular ingredient in Indian cookery and can be found in curry powders, pickles and chutneys. It is also an ingredient in some Middle Eastern and Caribbean recipes.
Fenugreek is particularly useful in a vegetarian diet as it is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals including selenium, iron, silicon, sodium and thiamine. It has sometimes been used as a yellow dye.
Fenugreek has a number of traditional medicinal uses. It is used in poultices to treat boils, cysts and similar complaints; to treat diabetes by reducing blood sugar; also, to fight infections, lower blood pressure, relieve congestion (mucus and phlegm), reduce inflammation, reduce fever and improve libido. A decoction of fenugreek seeds is sometimes used as a substitute for cod liver oil, which has a similar chemical make up.