The temptation when faced with a new recipe and missing ingredients is to just mix them up a little. However with a bit more understanding of what each spice brings to a dish you can decide how to replace and substitute with a bit more expertise.
Let’s get a bit more familiar with fenugreek seed and fennel seed and then try to pick apart how we use each of them and when we can make certain substitutions. We will go through fresh ingredients verses dried as well as ways to use pre-made spice blends.
There are a few surprises along the way!
What Are The Differences Between Fenugreek Seed & Fennel Seed
- Fenugreek is a legume (Trigonella foenum-graecum) and as such those who may be allergic to peanuts are also thought to be potentially sensitive to milled fenugreek seed. Fennel seed are from the flower heads of the herb fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) which is in the carrot family.
- Fennel is native to the Mediterranean region and fenugreek is native to both the Mediterranean and Asia.
- Fenugreek seeds are squared and yellow. Fennel seeds are greenish grey when fresh and dry to a brown grey color.
- Fenugreek tastes like maple syrup crossed with a hint of celery. So a sort of mature sweetness. Fennel seeds are often confused with anise as there is a strong licorice flavor, but again in a sort of grow up way, with notes of earthiness. Both flavors would dominate a dish if not combined with other strong flavors.
- Both fenugreek and fennel are used in savory dishes and can also be used in puddings and desserts. Fenugreek seed is an essential ingredient of Halva of methi halwa, which is super tasty and well worth making at home.
- Fennel seeds are known as Saunf in Hindi and Fenugreek leaves or seeds are known as Methi. So when you are looking for recipe ideas know that methi and fenugreek are the same and saunf and fennel seeds are the same.
Substitutes For Fennel Seeds
Replacements for fennel include Anise, star anise, caraway seeds, dill seeds, fresh dill leaves and even at a pinch cumin seeds. For more on how to use these replacements see our full article here.
Substitutes For Fenugreek Seed
Maple syrup makes a great replacement for fenugreek seeds. This is due to the similarities in flavor, however this is not going to give you the background note of bitterness that you also need. This may be a great like for like in the sweetness though, so add some toasted yellow mustard seed at the same time to your cooking as you would do the fenugreek then add your maple syrup later in a dish. 1 teaspoon of fenugreek = 1 teaspoon of yellow mustard see + 1 teaspoon of maple syrup.
Celery salt will off you that savory edge that comes with fenugreek seed. However it will not have any of that mature sweetness that comes from the maple syrup element so sometimes it can help to add a little brown sugar. 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds = 1/2 teaspoon celery salt + 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Lovage Leaves Or Chinese Celery Leaves
This is a great substitute for fresh fenugreek leaves. The celery like flavor is easy to replicate in the celery or lovage leaves. Lovage is easy to grow at home and celery is readily available in the supermarkets. There are some differences to the Chinese celery and it doesn’t quite have an equivalent in the shops. 1 cup of fenugreek leaves = 1 cup of lovage leaves.
Most curry powders contain fenugreek powder too. This means you will get the heat of the curry powder but also the back notes of maple syrup and celery. Rearrange your recipe entirely if this is your substitute. Look at the other ingredients of your curry powder and see how it is repeated in your recipes list of ingredients. This is not a straight swap and each recipe will be different.
Yellow mustard seed for preference to bring out the bitterness of the fenugreek seed. It will be used at the same time s fenugreek and toasted in ghee or butter. Then you can add your other ingredients and when a sauce is formed add maple syrup or even brown sugar to add the subtle sweetness of fenugreek. 1 teaspoon of fenugreek = 1 teaspoon of mustard seed + 1 teaspoon of maple syrup.
At a pinch you can use honey mustard and this will help to bring a fenugreek like flavor. Avoid adding it when frying off the onions though as it can burn quite easily.
Granted you may have it right at the back of your spice rack and it may have been a few years since it was last opened, but fenugreek powder is ideal as a substitute. Be very aware that you cannot just add it to be toasted in the same way as fenugreek seeds, but the powder will benefit from cooking off a little. Otherwise the overriding flavor is of bitterness and you lose the sweet maple syrup like aroma.
Fenugreek Seed Recipes
- Aloo Methi is a lovely potato based side dish that uses fenugreek leaves to add sweetness and a bitter back note. Dassana takes you through a really simple way to reduce the bitterness of the leaves by soaking in salted water and bringing to the boil. This will take the edge off before cooking begins and is an excellent tip for any fenugreek dish.
- Ragi Dosa / Nachni Dosa is a finger food and the best way to think of it is as a folded flat pancake made from fermented millet batter. Used a a breakfast dish but you can eat it with chutneys and dishes which need a little mopping up for a real treat.
- Jamaican Goat Curry is a heavily spiced dish and one where you can try to avoid too many astringent flavors clashing. The star anise seems to be the real bully in this dish and perhaps looking at using fennel seeds instead will help rebalance the overall flavor of the dish. A real winter warmer and a taste of sunshine in a pot!
- Fenugreek Chicken This is Madhur Jaffrey’s version using dried fenugreek leaves and it offers an easy method for cooking. I would change the oil to coconut oil as it then gives you an even more nutty flavor to fall back on.
- Methi Gobi is a cauliflower and ginger and fenugreek dish that is great as a side dish. This recipe is vegan, however it does require yogurt and we use normal Greek yogurt with it, but it is still vegetarian. This is as much about availability than anything else. You can also go a bit wild here and include different leftover vegetables that you have in your home as well.
What Next & Further Reading
- Fennel Seeds Vs Cumin Seeds Important Differences
- Growing The Herb Fennel In The UK
- Spices And Herbs What Are The Important Differences
- The Science of Spice: Understand Flavour Connections and Revolutionize your Cooking by Dr Stuart Farrimond
- Curry Leaves & Bay Leaves Important Differences & Uses
- Cardamom Vs Cinnamon- Important Uses & Differences