Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fenugreek's Flavors

Now and then, fresh fenugreek leaves appear at the farmers markets that I frequent (usually at the Vang Farms stand at Berkeley's Saturday market). When this happens, I buy a bunch and then get some potatoes from another stand to make my version of a recipe in Julie Sahni's "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking."

In the past, when I cook the leaves or use the seeds, which are called methi in India, the lingering aroma (which infuses my body for hours after I eat the leaves) has reminded me of another food.  However, I couldn't quite figure out what it was until recently.

The mystery flavor and aroma turns out to be maple syrup.  The reason for this is that one of the flavor chemicals in fenugreek is sotolon (or sotolone or 3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethyl-2[5H]-furanone), which has a maple-like flavor and aroma, and consequently is part of the chemical mixture used in making imitation maple flavor. Perhaps I couldn't make the connection because the idea of maple syrup being part of my Indian cooking was too odd to consider. 

The Dictionary of Flavors says this about artificial maple flavorings:
Although the maple syrup sold in the mass supermarket is somewhat different than the flavor of the real maple syrup, the general population has learned to identify it with the term "maple syrup" rather than the profile of real syrup. In fact some studies showed that the mass market prefers the synthesized maple syrup to the real substance. This is a true example of the power of mass marketing and learned association. Synthesized maple syrup is made from sugar syrups flavored with fenugreek, St. John's bread [ed. note: also known as carob or locust bean], glycerrhize, malt, celery, lovage, molasses and other brown extracts and chemicals (cyclotene, maltol, etc.).
The sotolon compound is also present elsewhere, like in the Lactarius helvus mushroom, according to an article in the journal Mycologia (first page and abstract here). The article notes that sotolon is an important flavor compound in French flor-sherry wine, old sake, soy sauce, sugar molasses, and barley malt (used in beer-making).

The Julie Sahni recipe mentioned previously combines the fenugreek leaves with butter, potatoes and a bit of garam masala. Sahni writes that it is a classic dish from New Dehli and is sometimes made using new potatoes that are “as tiny as cranberries.” I haven’t tried it with such tiny potatoes, but have had excellent results using normal boiling potatoes that are cut into bite-sized pieces. It's quite tasty, with the slight bitterness of the fenugreek leaves balanced by the solid earthiness of the potatoes. 

Recipe:  Potatoes and Fenugreek Leaves
Adapted from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Sahni

1 pound new potatoes or boiling potatoes, cut into bite size pieces, left unpeeled
1/4 – 1/2 pound fresh fenugreek leaves
4 T. butter
1/2 t. black pepper
1/2 t. garam masala
1/2 T. lemon juice
Salt to taste

  • Scrub the potatoes and cut them into bite-sized pieces.
  • Strip fenugreek leaves and branches from the thick stems (leaving leaves on some thin stems is fine).  Thoroughly wash the leaves, drain, and finely chop.
  • Melt half of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat (pick a skillet for which you have a cover).  Add the potatoes and cook, turning occasionally, until they are lightly fried. 
  • Mix in the fenugreek leaves and cook for a few minutes, until the greens have wilted.  Stir in the black pepper and remaining butter. 
  • Cover the skillet, lower the heat to low, and cook until the potatoes are tender (around 20 minutes or so).  Stir every few minutes, checking to see if there is any burning. If the pan is dry, add a few tablespoons of water. 
  • When the potatoes are tender, remove the cover. Increase the heat and cook until excess moisture has evaporated.
  • Sprinkle the mixture with garam masala, lemon juice and salt.  Mix well and cook for several more minutes until the potatoes are coated with the spices and have a glazed appearance. 

Image Credits
Drawing of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Sugar maple leaf from tlindenbaum's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: 2008 resolution review