One of the most frequent questions I get is why home-cooked ethnic food doesn't taste like its restaurant counterparts. Part of the answer is typical of the home-cooking/restaurant divide: Restaurants are willing to use way more salt and fat than most cooks. There's also equipment and techniques, which can be purchased or learned, but at a cost or inconvenience too high for some. But when it comes to some ethnic cuisines, the answer can often down to ingredients, many of which act as covert markers of what we think of when we think of that cuisine. For Indian cooking, fenugreek is one of those ingredients.
I call it a covert marker because smelling fenugreek alone is more reminiscent of Aunt Jemima than curries and kabobs. So much so that when a New Jersey factory was processing fenugreek in 2005, lower Manhattan was overcome by the aroma of pancakes and syrup. It's a common ingredient in fake maple syrup, and smelling the spice alone can be off-putting. Tasting it raw is even worse, as it's incredibly bitter.
But when combined with aromatics and spices, fenugreek contributes a complex sweetness and a subtle bitterness to saucy dishes. Its maple syrup flavor transforms into something more akin to dark caramel, and it makes a palette of more well-known spices feel complete. There's no substitute for it, but it's easy to use and increasingly easy to find.
How to Use Fenugreek
Fenugreek can be used both as an herb and a spice, though their flavor is similar. The leaves (top) are available fresh, frozen, or dried. Fresh leaves are used as leafy greens in curries (especially with potatoes), or folded into fry-breads. When dried, the leaves retain most of their flavor and make excellent last-minute additions to sauces, curries, and soup. The seeds benefit from longer cooking to infuse with other flavors, so when a recipe calls for fenugreek I like to start with the seeds and finish with the leaves. This two-stage approach "refreshes" the spice, giving you the best of long-cooked flavors and barely-heated aromas.
The seeds have their own uses, so I keep them around as well as the leaves. Give them a pan roast to reduce their bitterness, then add to pickle brines, homemade curry powders, or your next batch of niter kibbeh, an Ethiopian spiced butter (Ethiopian cuisine loves fenugreek).
Fenugreek definitely has some flavor affinities. I love it with dark, leafy greens that have a bitter edge to them—fenugreek is the perfect bittersweet counterpart. In long-cooked, heavily-spiced dishes, fenugreek is one of many components, but it works particularly well with strong flavors like coriander, cumin, and paprika. It deepens the savory notes of tomatoes in sauces and stews (great for simmered tomatoes and okra). But when experimenting, proceed with caution. Even though pan-roasting reduces its bitterness, too much fenugreek is overwhelmingly bitter. And even when used in appropriate amounts, you'll want to finish your dish with a heavy sprinkling of lime or lemon juice. The acid cuts a sweetness that would otherwise be cloying and is necessary to draw out all the rounded, complex flavors fenugreek has to offer.
Where to Find Fenugreek
Fenugreek isn't the most common spice in Western markets, but there's no real substitute for it, so ask around at your local Indian market. It's often called methi, so keep your eyes out for that. Fresh leaves won't keep for long, so don't be afraid to buy frozen or dried. Or you can buy feather-light dried leaves from Savory Spice Shop for $6 an ounce.
The seeds may be easier to find, but stick to whole seeds when possible to get any longevity out of them. You can get whole seeds at The Spice House at $3 for 4 ounces.