Fenugreek (trigonella foenum graecum), a papilionaceae which grows up to 50 cm high, is anchored in the ground by means of powerful roots. This plant, which normally lasts one year and has clover-like leaves, produces yellowish-white blossoms in June and July. The characteristic fruit pods in which the seeds are contained are reminiscent of the horns of a ram. Fenugreek owes its name to them. The smell of the seeds is aromatic and spicy and the taste is quite bitter. Fenugreek originates from Mesopotamia. From here it conquered the areas from the Mediterranean region to Central Asia, where it is grown as a crop plant. In Germany fenugreek is often to be found growing in the wild in the port area of towns.
Fenugreek is one of the oldest cultivated crop plants. The ancient Egyptians regarded its aromatic seed as a tonic and used it as an ingredient for flour and as a spice. The fact that fenugreek seeds were even found in Tutankhamen’s grave underlines the great appreciation the Egyptians had for the little plant. In North Africa fenugreek served as a substitute for coffee and for producing other beverages. In Greece for more than 2000 years fenugreek has been roasted and also sweetened by honey. For Socrates fenugreek-seeds belonged to “students´ food” as raisins and nuts do for us today. That´s why fenugreek is called “philosophers´ clover” sometimes. In the 9th century the plant made its way to Germany. According to a decree of Charlemagne´s the plant was cultivated in monastery gardens. In the medieval books about herbs fenugreek played an important role – also because of its unique spice-power. Its long history, however, did not shelter it from being buried in oblivion in Europe. Because of its intensive taste and the accordingly necessary processing the plant had to be discovered in our days for a second time – by Dr. Pandalis.
The small seeds of fenugreek may look unimpressive, but they are real muscle men. They contain carbohydrates, fibres and mucous substances. They are a rich source of essential amino acids and they contain 4-hydroxyisoleucin, too, an amino acid which is nearly unknown in conjunction with highly developed plants. Moreover the seeds contain several enzyme inhibitors, the effects of which can be reduced by heat treatment. The proportion of secondary vegetable substances in the seeds is quite eminent. Mainly the bitters, saponines, and the trigonellin (from the Latin name of the plant Trigonella) make the seed something special.
Saponines are surface active compounds, which mostly taste very bitter. In former times they were quite important for the production of soap, as the Latin name sapo (=soap) shows. In vegetable food saponines are widespread. Among other things they they provide the foam on certain beverages. Forst of all, legumes are rich in these secondary vegetable substances, which are mostly heated, in order to make them digestible and to improve their bioavailability.
The following health statements for fenugreek are currently being evaluated by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority):
Fenugreek supports milk production, recovery after a birth and brings the cycle back into equilibrium.
It also regulates insulin and blood sugar levels and supports fat metabolism.