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Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a plant in the family Fabaceae. Fenugreek is used both as an herb (the leaves) and as a spice (the seed). It is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop. It is frequently used in curry. Fenugreek is believed to have been brought into cultivation in the Near East. Charred fenugreek seeds have been recovered from Tell Halal Iraq (radiocarbon dating to 4000 BC) and Bronze Age levels of Lachish as well as desiccated seeds from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The rhombic yellow to amber colored fenugreek seed commonly called maithray is frequently used in the preparation of pickles curry powders and pastes and is often encountered in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. The young leaves and sprouts of fenugreek are eaten as greens and the fresh or dried leaves are used to flavor other dishes. The dried leaves (called kasturi methi) have a bitter taste and a strong characteristic smell. In India fenugreek seeds are mixed with yogurt and used as a conditioner for hair. It is one of the three ingredients of idli and dosa. It is also one of the ingredients in the making of khakhra a type of bread. It is used in injera/taita a type of bread unique to Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine. It is also sometimes used as an ingredient in the production of clarified butter which is similar to Indian ghee. In Turkey fenugreek gives its name çemen to a hot paste used in past?rma. The same paste is used in Egypt for the same purpose. The Arabic word hulba for the seed resembles its Mandarin Chinese counterpart hu lu ba. In Yemen it is the main condiment and an ingredient added to the national dish called saltah. Fenugreek or shanbalîleh in Persian is also one of four herbs used for the Iranian recipe Ghormeh Sabzi. In Egypt fenugreek seeds are prepared as tea by being boiled then sweetened. This is a popular winter drink served in coffee shops. In other parts of the Middle East fenugreek is used in a variety of sweet confections. A cake dessert known as Helba in the Islamic world is a tasty treat during Islamic holidays. This is a semolina cake covered in sugar or maple-like syrup and sprinkled with fenugreek seeds on top. Jews customarily eat fenugreek during the meal of the first and/or second night of Rosh Hashana (The New Year). It is eaten with a prayer "that our merits increase". Yemenite Jews often prepare a foamy substance from fenugreek seeds that they add to soups. In Bulgaria fenugreek seeds are used as one of the ingredients in a traditional spice mixture called sharena sol. In the United States where maple syrup is popular but expensive fenugreek is widely used in lower-cost syrup products as a maple syrup flavoring such as Mapleine.
Fenugreek is much used in herbal medicine especially in North Africa the Middle East and India. It has a wide range of medicinal applications. The seeds are very nourishing and are given to convalescents and to encourage weight gain especially in anorexia nervosa. Research has shown that the seeds can inhibit cancer of the liver lower blood cholesterol levels and also have an antidiabetic effect. The seed and leaves are anticholesterolemic anti-inflammatory antitumor carminative demulcent deobstruent emollient expectorant febrifuge galactogogue hypoglycaemic laxative parasiticide restorative and uterine tonic. The seed yields a strong mucilage and is therefore useful in the treatment of inflammation and ulcers of the stomach and intestines. Taken internally a decoction of the ground seeds serves to drain off the sweat ducts. The seed is very nourishing and body-building and is one of the most effective tonics in cases of physical debility caused by anaemia or by infectious diseases especially where a nervous factor is involved. It is also used in the treatment of late-onset diabetes poor digestion (especially in convalescence) insufficient lactation painful menstruation labour pains etc. The seeds freshen bad breath and restore a dulled sense of taste. Externally the seeds can be ground into a powder and used as a poultice for abscesses boils ulcers burns etc or they can be used as a douche for excessive vaginal discharge. The leaves are harvested in the growing season and can be used fresh or dried. The seeds are harvested when fully ripe and dried for later use. Compounds extracted from the plant have shown cardiotonic hypoglycaemic diuretic antiphlogistic and hypotensive activey. One of its constituent alkaloids called 'trigonelline' has shown potential for use in cancer therapy. The seed contains the saponin diosgenin an important substance in the synthesis of oral contraceptives and sex hormones whilst saponins in the plant have been extracted for use in various other pharmaceutical products.
The seeds should not be prescribed medicinally for pregnant women since they can induce uterine contractions.