Fennel as a Spice

Fennel Crusted Salmon
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A spice that adds a distinct flavor to food, fennel has found myriad uses in a variety of cuisines and also packs a punch as far as its health benefits are concerned.

Used both as an herb and a spice, fennel is a common ingredient across several global cuisines. The fresh leaves and the bulb are used extensively in salads. The spice is used in many sauces and mixes. The rarest form of fennel is the not so popular, fennel pollen.  Delightfully fragrant and sweet the pollen has a ‘saffron like’ status and is mostly collected and used in Italy.

Chicken and Corn Soup courtesy One Fine Meal, Delhi
Chicken and Corn Soup courtesy One Fine Meal, Delhi

Culinary Cues

Fennel is a fragrant flowering plant from the Mediterranean. It is popularly referred in Italy as the fish herb and has a strong camphor note. “It is used for seasoning soups, breads and sauces. In Asia and India however fennel is used mostly after roasting, and has a distinct sweet and spicy flavor. It is quintessential to many famous spice mixes like the Chinese Five Spice, Garam masala, and Panch phoran. Sugar coated fennel is also served a mouth freshener in many parts of the country,” says G V Ramesh, Executive Chef, Novotel Kochi Infopark. Fennel is a versatile spice and can be used in many ways. It comes under the category of a sweet smelling spice. “Fresh fennel can be used as accompaniments for many dishes like grilled fennel bulb goes very well with grilled fish and can be used just as a grilled vegetable also. It can be roasted and pureed and can be served as a side sauce or as a base for pasta. Fennel seed is used for tempering gravies and masalas. Fennel seed can be slightly roasted and grounded and then can be used for flavouring curry. It also goes very well with dessert because of its sweet-smelling taste like say in malpua,” avers Chef Shiiv Parvesh, Head Chef, Hyatt Regency Amritsar managed by Shanti Hospitality Management Services. Chef Tarun Sibal, Director, One Fine Meal, Delhi advices, “less is more when fennel is used in cooking. It is a potent spice hence mild usage is desired. Different parts of fennel can be used in different preparations. They have a mild anise flavour but because they are so delicate and beautiful they are most often used for garnish.”

Prawn Thokku at ibis Bengaluru City Centre
Prawn Thokku at ibis Bengaluru City Centre

The Zing Factor

While using fennel it is recommended that you lightly roast on low heat and powder. Use the powder in combination with the other spices and heat to get your desired flavour. Fennel is a very aromatic spice often used in combination with other Indian spices. A large variety of dishes from most all parts of the country use fennel to add a sweet aroma and its flavor is a bit like anise. “Some of the preparations of fennel include Goan Xacuti, Thokku style south Indian dishes and north Indian pickles.” Good liquors exist with a fennel being the star ingredient. Also try gently using fennel in western preparations such as lamb or chicken, using a roasting or braising approach. Also do not hesitate to use the leaves for higher flavour, and bulbs as a gently aromatic vegetable,” says Chef Anthony, Head Chef of KA01 Rooftop bar and eats at ibis Bengaluru City Center. Fennel can be used as a tempering. For instance adding fennel curtails the bitterness of bitter gourd and fennel tempering is a must while making karele ki subzi. In powder form it enhances the flavours of curry like in the classical Kashmiri speciality dish mutton rogan josh as dry fennel powder is added at last which gives the entire dish a unique flavour. It can be used as topping like saunf wala tandoori naan and the Hyderabad exotic bread bakarkhani. Many kinds of western bread are baked with the topping of fennel seeds. Fennel has a very strong flavor and is similar to anise. The herb, fennel goes very well in salad and seafood or even in making soups. “Since fennel has strong flavor the overdose of fennel can make the dish bitter. So be extra careful when you add them to your dish. Fennel has two parts the top part (the leaves) can be used a garnish or even in salads by itself. The stalk part is crunchy and can be lightly tossed which gives good flavour,” says Praveen Shetty, Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru.

Health Hues

A rich source of polyphenol antioxidants, fennel is a potent anti-inflammatory agent which can lower risks of many chronic diseases including heart diseases obesity and cancer. Apart from its culinary purposes, fennel is also a home remedy to digestive problems. Since fennel has very good herbal value which includes digestion and gastric issues it is used to make fennel scented tea. Apart from enhancing taste in food fennel plays a pivotal role in bringing up the medicinal value of food. It balances the heat of the spices and meat in the food. Fennel curtails the bad mouth smell after meal hence it is also used as a mouth freshener. Hot fennel water is very good for sleep and as per Ayurveda fennel cures toothache and asthma.

Avocado Mousse, Fennel, Plum Tomato
Avocado Mousse, Fennel, Plum Tomato

Avocado Mousse, Fennel, Plum Tomato (Recipe courtesy: Praveen Shetty, Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru)

Ingredients:

  • Avocado 2 numbers
  • Cream cheese 100 gm
  • Olive oil 50 ml
  • Lemon juice 5 ml
  • Black Pepper 2 gm
  • Salt 2 gm
  • Fennel 30 gm
  • Plum tomato 50 gm
  • Asparagus 30 gm
  • Arugula lettuce 20 gm

Method:

  • Clean, wash and peal the avocado and make a mousse with olive oil, lemon juice, seasoning and cream cheese.
  • Peel and trim the asparagus and blanch them in boiling salted water.
  • Thinly slice the fennel bulbs and keep it in ice cold water.
  • Serve the salad as shown in the picture and garnish it with fennel leaves.

Tips

  • When using fresh fennel it is very common for people to throw away the fronds. However if used fresh, the fronds have a light liquorice flavor and works well as a garnish to salads. It can also be dried and stored for adding as a seasoning for sauces and pastas.
  • When buying dried fennel always look for seeds that have at least a little green tinge, and are not completely brown.
  • The dried fennel seeds can retain flavor upto three years. However once ground it should be consumed within a year.
  • Be careful when roasting to avoid burning. Select greener rather than browner or paler ones when you buy.

This story first appeared in Spice Route’s September 2019 issue here:

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