This is the sixth installment of The Spice, a monthly series taking an elemental approach to Indian cuisine, a deep-dive into the flavors and ingredients powering the dishes we love.
If you haven’t heard of fenugreek, maybe it’s because you know it by a different name: methi. Sound familiar, now? It’s in cuisine all throughout India — its fresh leaves slipped into potato curries or folded into fried theplas and parathas. And fenugreek is something you’ll want to use every part of. The tiny, orange-brown seeds, reminiscent of popcorn kernels, can be tucked into a pickle, sauce or soup for a last-minute burst of smoky sweetness.
Chef Chintan Pandya described fenugreek’s flavor to Food & Wine as “one that starts out bitter but ends with a rolling, lingering sweetness.” It’s a strong ingredient; a little goes a long, long way. But when deployed with care, it can make for a complex, subtle flavor. Fenugreek can add depth and balance to dishes, elevating run-of-the-mill staples like lentils, or helping to temper other flavors, making it a sort of fix-all for dishes in need of that tempering.
One caveat: Fresh fenugreek can be difficult to find in the U.S. You’re likely to have better luck at your local Indian grocery, though even they might not carry them. Not to worry — in that case, opt for frozen fenugreek leaves, which they likely do carry, and are certain to bring powerful flavor to any dish.
The leaves work well as an option for any Indian recipe that calls for a bitter green, say a dal or curry. Cooking fenugreek can be tricky — the leaves do take some time to cook. But that means it can work nicely in a dal or other soup that’ll be simmering for a while.