From Yemen to Greece, Fenugreek Obsession

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To try Aglaia's recipe for zhug—the Yemeni hot sauce, often mixed with fenugreek paste, that is a favorite falafel condiment—click here.

After reading Corby's Maple Mystery—especially the last bit where fenugreek imparts the maple syrup flavor to ice cream—at last I understood why I hate maple syrup, one of the very few flavors I can't stand. One other is fenugreek (!), used to make artificial maple flavoring. It causes your body to reek if you eat lots of it. Usually known as one of the many curry components, fenugreek is a fascinating grain—not a spice but technically a legume, which contains proteins and minerals that make it an essential additive for vegetarians.

I was completely unfamiliar with the taste of fenugreek, which is difficult to find in Greece, although, ironically, its name in Latin means "Greek hay." Ancients called it telis—a word since lost. In modern Greek it is called tsemeni, using its Turkish name. In Greek cooking fenugreek is the predominant spice in the intensely flavored rub used in pastourma —the Greek and Middle Eastern version of pastrami.

Ancients believed fenugreek had many beneficial properties; they used it to treat headaches and as an aphrodisiac, though probably not in that order. The references I found spoke about a fenugreek pulp often mixed with garum, the Roman fermented fish sauce, or with strong vinegar. Looking at the tiny triangular grains, I couldn't comprehend what this ancient pulp could be until I took a trip in 1994 on which I met Shoshana Kabel, a Yemeni cook in Rosh Ha'a'Inn, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv. Many Yemenis had settled in that area, and I came across small grocery stores that looked as though they belonged to the previous century: long-bearded, handsome old men sold fenugreek, other spices, and nuts, scooping them from large jute sacks that rested on dirt floors. The place was like a time capsule for me, as I finally saw how hilbe—presumably the fenugreek pulp of the ancients—was made by hand. In stands at the central market in Tel Aviv I had seen the commercial version of hilbe—a bitter-tasting, glue-like concoction with a light brown unappealing color. But the real thing Shoshana prepared was a revelation!

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The jelly-like fenugreek pulp is not a flavoring but a nutritious means to dilute the fiery taste of zhug—the ubiquitous Yemenite sauce of herbs and hot peppers—that perfectly complements falafel at the roadside food stands in Israel.

Making hilbe, the fenugreek pulp

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To make hilbe you need to soak a quarter cup of fenugreek for three days, changing the water twice a day, and each time rinsing the seeds under running water in a sieve. After three days of soaking and washing, the fenugreek swells and loses most of its dark color and bitter taste. At this point the beating starts, which Shoshana insisted should be done by hand, as she had demonstrated. But I found that a blender or food processor works just as well. Adding about one cup of water to the soaked grains and processing them for one or two minutes, you get a glue-like thick paste, which needs to rest in the refrigerator for two to three hours. Then the cold pulp is again beaten or worked in a food processor, with about another cup of water. After three minutes in the blender, another half cup water is added, and it is processed for one to two minutes until a frothy and thick mixture forms that has the consistency of stiffly beaten egg whites. Note that from a mere quarter cup of fenugreek you get about three and a half cups of hilbe! The light green jelly-like pulp is kept in jars in the refrigerator or can be frozen.

Tablespoons of hilbe are used with zhug (see recipe) to flavor soups, or spread on flatbreads just before baking. The resulting slightly hot pitas are delicious. It can also be served as dip for pita, crackers, or crudités and, mainly, used as a relish with falafel or any fried vegetables and fish.

Unwanted side effects

I hate fenugreek, which to me tastes unpleasantly bitter with undertones of badly fermented garlic and unwashed, dirty, sweaty garments. But hilbe has a very pleasant smooth and light taste, and I remember that I made lots of it when I returned from Israel. We devoured it together with zhug, and as a topping for my homemade flat breads. But a few hours later, I felt the terrible fenugreek aroma reeking from the pores of my body. No deodorant was potent enough to stop this persistent odor, which took about a whole day to subside. Much as I loved the idea of recreating this historic recipe, I must admit that I haven't made hilbe since.

Besides the seeds, young fenugreek shoots are used as greens in the Middle East, as part of a boiled mixed green salad and side dishes. Last year a lady from Epirus—the northwestern corner of Greece—sent me the seeds of two regional plants she considered rare and crucial herb additions to the authentic pies of her area. One, which she called moschositaro (the word means "fragrant wheat"), was no other than fenugreek; the other, which she called makedonisi, was chervil. (The different regional names of greens and herbs in Greece can drive you crazy.) My assistant, Stamatia, confirmed that in her southern Albanian village fenugreek shoots were always added to the traditional pies "in moderation." She also told me that sheep and goats grazed on the overgrown nutritious fenugreek plants, but this could result in foul-smelling milk. Shepherds had to be very careful if they planned to sell milk, or make cheese and yogurt. On the other hand, Stamatia told me, if the animals were feeding their offspring they were given lots of fenugreek, "as it is known to increase the production of milk both to lactating animals as well as to women."

Recipe: Zhug (Yemeni Hot Sauce)