The kitchen was always interesting to me as a child because it had a number of things I wasnʼt allowed to touch. My sisters didnʼt have these rules. That is because my mother didnʼt worry that they would kill themselves by trying to eat salt or spices straight out of their tins. My curiosity almost always overshadowed my caution. All that stopped the day I knocked loose a couple of my milk teeth; the day I tried to munch on methi (fenugreek) seeds.

fenugreek seeds

When you look at the squat, rectangular and extremely hard seeds of fenugreek, you may wonder why anyone would take any trouble to work with it. But this unyielding spice is accompanied by a nutty, bitter and mellow flavor that could not be replicated by anything else. It loses some of its toughness when you gently fry or boil it, which also brings out its subtle flavor. The fragrance of the whole spice is a bit woody. But the wheaty, caramel colored seeds release a nutty aroma when cooked. In a spice blend, its flavors meld with the other spice to give the blend a deep bass note.

Due to the tough physical nature of the spice, it finds wide application in its ground form. But its seeds are also popular. A little goes a long way with this spice, as too much can make your meal overwhelmingly bitter. This is especially true if you are using whole seeds.

Fenugreek seeds also have medicinal qualities. As traditional remedies, concoctions of fenugreek are used as an appetite stimulator, in the curing of cough and congestion and prescribed to nursing mothers.

In India, the leaves of the fenugreek plant are used as a fragrant herb when dried and used as greens in their fresh state. The bitterness of the seed is reflected in the fresh leaves. They are very fragrant when they are dried. In the dry form, fenugreek leaves are used in curries and paired with vegetables like peas. They pair especially well with cream-based recipes. The seeds are like a more humble cousin. They too are used in different kinds of curries and in combination with various vegetables like okra and eggplant. The difference is that the seed will form the base of the recipe while the herblike leaves will be sprinkled on top of a dish towards the end of cooking.

Potatoes with coconut and fenugreek seeds

While several dishes use fenugreek seeds, either as part of a spice mix or on its own, the seeds are the star of this recipe along with the very versatile potato. It would be hard to define the roots of this dish. It falls under some semblance of western Indian cooking, but I think the credit lies with my mother-in-law, from whom I got the recipe. Were you to try to look for a similar vegetable recipe, you would most likely end up with several using fenugreek leaves. Like most Indian dishes, this one involves a combination of a few spices but they all come together in celebration of this unassuming seed, which is often relegated to a supporting role.

Potatoes with coconut and fenugreek seeds

Serves: 3-4

4 large yellow or red potatoes
1 cup grated coconut (fresh or frozen)
5 to 6 peppercorns
1/2 tsp tamarind paste
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
4 to 5 curry leaves
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1 large tomato, diced
2 to 3 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
Salt to taste

1. Cut potatoes lengthwise into eighths.
2. In a food processor, grind together the coconut, peppercorns and tamarind paste.
3. Heat the oil in a deep pan. To this add the mustard seeds, asafoetida, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves.
4. When the mustard seeds and curry leaves start to splutter, add the potatoes and stir to coat.
5. Add the turmeric and chilli powders and toss the potatoes in it until evenly coated. Fry for a bit.
6. Add the coconut gravy. Stir together and cover the pan to allow the mixture to simmer for a short while.
7. Once the potatoes are just about cooked, add the diced tomato and stir. Add salt.
8. Turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Then turn the heat down to simmer for five minutes before serving.

Serve with rice or bread.

Fenugreek seeds should be lightly roasted. They are horribly bitter and hard to eat when they are subjected to a dark roast. The seeds are readily available in any store that sells spices. Certain grocery stores, like Safeway may sell it in its powdered form. Indian chilli powder is purely ground up dried chillis. That (as well as asafoetida) are available inexpensively in Indian stores. Curry leaves should be available in their freezer section. A good thing to remember is that most Indian stores will sell spices at much more reasonable rates than other stores. Since they are widely used in Indian food, the spices there should also be fresher because of the rapid turnover.

Fenugreek: The rough-and-tough seed 8 August,2009Sharmila Badkar

  • victor

    Thanks. Looks delicious. Im gonna try this one.

  • A Mehta

    It looks great. I will try this one. Thanks!


Sharmila Badkar

Sharmila Badkar is an architect (and when she says architect, she means it in the bricks and mortar sense, not 1s and 0s) working in San Francisco. Sharmila and food have been far more than nodding acquaintances for most of her life. She spent many a day in her childhood sitting in the kitchen and annoying the heck out of her mother by watching what she was doing like a hawk. The fact that she tried to create early spice mixes by moving spoonfuls of one spice into another in the traditional Indian spice tin whenever she got her grubby little hands on it (the colors are so pretty!!) did not endear her much either. She was born in England, grew up in Bombay, India and has lived in the United States for quite some time so asking her where she’s from is not a good idea unless you have an hour or so to spare. She can recall being picky about food, all her favourite childhood books and high school with startling clarity, yet will rarely be able to tell you the exact recipe to that dish she cooked an hour ago. This and her perennial love of writing are what led her to create Cheeky Chilli, a blog about everything and anything related with food and her life. She wishes more than anything that she could meet P.G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie but they both died just before she was born, so that’s never going to happen. She lives in San Francisco with her husband Amey, best friend, assiduous critic, fellow architect and top-notch cook. He is tasked with taking fabulous photos of her cooking and always making ‘mmmm’ noises when he’s eating it.

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