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!