Fenugreek (//; Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an annual plant in the family Fabaceae, with leaves consisting of three small obovate to oblong leaflets. It is cultivated worldwide as a semiarid crop. Its seeds and leaves are common ingredients in dishes from South and Central Asia.
Fenugreek is believed to have been brought into cultivation in the Near East. It is uncertain which wild strain of the genus Trigonella gave rise to domesticated fenugreek, charred fenugreek seeds have been recovered from Tell Halal, Iraq (carbon dated to 4000 BC), and Bronze Age levels of Lachish and desiccated seeds from the tomb of Tutankhamen. Cato the Elder lists fenugreek with clover and vetch as crops grown to feed cattle.
In one first-century A.D. recipe, the Romans flavoured wine with fenugreek. In the 1st century AD, in Galilee, it was grown as a food staple, as Josephus mentions it in his book, the Wars of the Jews.
Fenugreek is used as a herb (dried or fresh leaves), spice (seeds), and vegetable (fresh leaves, sprouts, and microgreens). Sotolon is the chemical responsible for the distinctive maple syrup smell of fenugreek.
Cuboid-shaped, yellow- to amber-coloured fenugreek seeds are frequently encountered in the cuisines of the Indian subcontinent, used both whole and powdered in the preparation of pickles, vegetable dishes, dal, and spice mixes such as panch phoron and sambar powder. They are often roasted to reduce bitterness and enhance flavour.
Fresh fenugreek leaves are an ingredient in some curries, such as with potatoes in cuisines of the Indian subcontinent to make “aloo methi” (“potato fenugreek”) curry. Sprouted seeds and fenugreek greens are used in salads. When harvested as greens, fenugreek is known as samudra methi in Maharashtra, especially in and around Mumbai, where it is often grown in sandy tracts near the sea, hence the name samudra, “ocean” in Sanskrit. Samudra methi is also grown in dry river beds in the Gangetic plains. When sold as a vegetable, the young plants are harvested with their roots still attached and sold in small bundles in the markets and bazaars. Any remaining soil is washed off to extend their shelf life.
In Turkish cuisine, fenugreek seeds are used for making a paste known as çemen. Cumin, black pepper, and other spices are added into it, especially to make pastırma. In Persian cuisine, fenugreek leaves are called shanbalile. They are the key ingredient and one of several greens incorporated into ghormeh sabzi and eshkeneh as common Iranian dishes.
In Egyptian cuisine, peasants in Upper Egypt add fenugreek seeds and maize to their pita bread to produce aish merahrah, a staple of their diet. Fenugreek is used in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine. The word for fenugreek in Amharic is abesh (or abish), and the seed is used in Ethiopia as a natural herbal medicine in the treatment of diabetes.
Yemenite Jews following the interpretation of Rabbi Shelomo Yitzchak (Rashi) believe fenugreek, which they call hilbeh, hilba, helba, or halba “חילבה”, to be the Talmudic rubia “רוביא”. When the seed kernels are ground and mixed with water they greatly expand; hot spices, turmeric and lemon juice are added to produce a frothy relish eaten with a sop. The relish is also called hilbeh; it is reminiscent of curry. It is eaten daily and ceremonially during the meal of the first and/or second night of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||1,352 kJ (323 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||25 g|
|†Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
In a 100 g amount, fenugreek seeds provide 1,350 kilojoules (323 kcal) of food energy and contain 9% water, 58% carbohydrates, 23% protein and 6% fat, with calcium at 40% of the Daily Value (DV, table). Fenugreek seeds (per 100 g) are a rich source of protein (46% DV), dietary fiber, B vitamins, and dietary minerals, particularly manganese (59% DV) and iron (262% DV) (table).
Fenugreek sprouts, cultivated from a single specific batch of seeds imported from Egypt into Germany in 2009, were implicated as the source of the 2011 outbreak of Escherichia coli O104:H4 in Germany and France. Identification of a common producer and a single batch of fenugreek seeds supports the epidemiologic evidence implicating them as the source of the outbreaks.
Some people are allergic to fenugreek, and people who have peanut allergies or chickpea allergies may also have a reaction to fenugreek. Fenugreek seeds can cause diarrhea, dyspepsia, abdominal distention, flatulence, perspiration, and a maple-like smell to urine or breast milk. There is a risk of hypoglycemia particularly in people with diabetes; it may also interfere with the activity of anti-diabetic drugs. Because of the high content of coumarin-like compounds in fenugreek, it may interfere with the activity and dosing of anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs. Fenugreek may affect uterine contractions and may be unsafe for women with hormone-sensitive cancers.
It causes birth defects in animals and there are reports that it also causes birth defects in humans, and that it can pass through the placenta; it also appears to negatively affect male fertility, female fertility, and the viability of embryos in animals and humans.
In traditional medicine, fenugreek is thought to promote digestion, induce labour, and reduce blood sugar levels in diabetics, although the evidence that fenugreek has any therapeutic worth is lacking.
Fenugreek is sometimes used as animal feed. It provides a green fodder palatable to ruminants. The seeds are also used to feed fish, domestic rabbits and ruminants. 
Fenugreek seeds and leaves contain the molecule sotolone, which imparts the aroma of fenugreek and curry in high concentrations, and maple syrup or caramel in lower concentrations. Fenugreek is used as a flavoring agent in imitation maple syrup or tea, and as a dietary supplement.
A mysterious odor of maple syrup – the maple syrup event occurring in New York City in 2005 – was eventually traced to a nearby New Jersey factory of a food additives company processing fenugreek seeds.
A 2016 meta-analysis combining the results of 12 small studies, of which only three were high quality, found that fenugreek may reduce some biomarkers in people with diabetes and with pre-diabetic conditions, but that better quality research would be required in order to draw conclusions. As of 2016, there was no high-quality evidence for whether fenugreek is safe and effective to relieve dysmenorrhea.
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- Cato the Elder. De Agri Cultura. p. 27.
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- Josephus, De Bello Judaico, book 3, chapter 7, vs. 29. The prepared relish made from ground fenugreek seeds is very slimy and slippery, and was therefore poured over ladders as a stratagem to prevent the enemy’s ascent.
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- This is based on the assumption that the Aramaic name רוביא corresponds to it. (Karetot 6a; Horiyot 12a) Rabbenu Nissim at the end of Rosh Hashana, citing the custom of R Hai Gaon. This follows Rashi’s translation of רוביא, cited as authoritative by Tur and Shulchan Aruch OC 583:1. But Abudirham interprets רוביא as black-eyed peas.
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- Jen Chung (5 February 2019). “Happy 10-year anniversary of NYC finding the alleged source of the mysterious maple syrup smell”. The Gothamist (New York Public Radio). Retrieved 17 March 2019.
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