Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sweet Sweat

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that my armpit odors were smelling exceptionally sweet, like brown-sugar cookies.  I was very privately pleased with my new smell, thinking that brown-sugar b.o. could only be a sign of good health, but, as the smell lingered, I began to worry that what I was perceiving as brown sugar, the world at large was perceiving as a bad case of b.o.  I tried the solutions that normally work – I shaved my armpits, washed with antibacterial soap, and applied rubbing alcohol.  But the sweet scent lingered, so I went to Lee and asked for his opinion.  Yep, he confirmed, you are smelling exceptionally sweet but that's definitely b.o.  I spent the rest of the week alternately enjoying the smell and worrying that I was turning into one of the parents in the South Park episode where they move to San Francisco and enjoy the smell of their own farts.

A day or two after I asked Lee to assess my smells, he mentioned that he was also smelling of brown sugar, and I wondered then if our diet had something to do with it.  Maybe it's all the greens we are eating, I told him.  But the smell faded and I forgot about it until today, when I decided it was time to research fenugreek and write about the delicious fenugreek and potatoes dish that I made a couple of weeks ago.  It turns out that fenugreek seeds, taken in quantity, have a side effect known as a "maple syrup odor."  Aha!  No wonder we smelled like sugar cookies that week.  We now have anecdotal evidence that eating a bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves from the garden also produces the maple syrup odor.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a herb in the pea family that was originally cultivated in northern Africa and the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean.  Fenugreek, Latin for "Greek hay," is related to clover and vetch, pea-family legumes that are also cultivated as cover crops, to improve the soil, and as livestock feed.  Now most of the world's fenugreek is grown in India, where it is known as methi, in the state of Rajasthan, a large, arid state bordering Pakistan.  Fenugreek is grown for its young leaves, which are cooked with potatoes, in dals, or into breads, and for its seeds, which are toasted and ground into a spice to flavor curries or sweats such as halva.  Commercially, fenugreek is used to make yellow dye and to make artificial maple syrup flavoring.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) in the garden

Fenugreek seeds, which are rich in protein, oils, and vitamins A, B1, and C, have an amazing number of medicinal uses.  Traditionally, fenugreek was given to women for menstrual cramps, to induce labor, or for postpartum recovery, because fenugreek promotes and increases milk flow and acts as a uterine stimulant.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, fenugreek is used for warming and toning the kidneys and alleviating joint pain.  Modern medical studies have shown that, when taken regularly, fenugreek can decrease blood sugar and lower "bad" cholesterol levels.  Fenugreek is also used as an anti-inflammatory, a fever reducer, an expectorant, a breath freshener, and a digestive aid.

Here's where I can't help but wondering, as I always do when I see a commercial for one of those pharmaceuticals whose side effects may include paralysis, blindness, sudden drops in blood sugar or blood pressure, increased susceptibility to certain cancers or fungal infections, etc, why modern medicine does not take more seriously the medicines of nature, like fenugreek, whose side effects may include smelling like a fresh-baked maple cookie.

I discovered fenugreek seeds along with Indian food, and I learned out that I loved the flavor of rice or millet cooked with fenugreek seeds.  My fondness for fenugreek grew when I found ready-to-eat Indian dishes that contained fenugreek, such as MTR's Alu Methi.  But I have to confess that, despite my botanical training, gardening experience, and the fact that I had eaten fenugreek leaves in those ready-to-eat methi dishes that I liked so much, I had no idea that fenugreek could be eaten as a leafy herb, nor did I have any concept of there being a fenugreek plant, until I happened upon the seed packet for Botanical Interests Fenugreek, a cool-season annual herb.  Because of which I had a real moment there in the seed section when I realized that methi dishes were not spiced with methi (fenugreek) seeds, but were composed in part of methi leaves, which I could grow in my garden next to the other cool-season herbs like fennel, cilantro, and parsley.

So I planted half a row of fenugreek next to the half a row of fennel and have watched with curiosity as the gangly, clover-looking plants have grown into their space.  In December, two months after planting, which is the age suggested for harvesting the leaves, my precocious plants were already flowering and producing baby seed pods.  Perhaps they were misled by the day length in Austin, or perhaps they were simply confused, as we all are, by the highly variable but generally mild season that we call fall here.  In any case, I harvested a handful of plants, removed the stems, flowers, and baby seed pods, washed them, and found a recipe for Methi Aloo, the fenugreek and potato dish that I already knew and loved.  Homemade Methi Aloo was nothing like the ready-to-eat stuff from the packet but was crispy, flavorful, and scored a this is my new favorite thing complement from Lee.  Plus, as a bonus, we smelled like imitation maple syrup for the rest of the week.

Methi Aloo
Adapted from Padma's Kitchen.

I accidentally added caraway seeds to this dish, thinking they were cumin seeds, but the end result was delicious anyway, so I have also added them to the recipe.  I didn't have urad dal on hand, so I omitted that and the recipe worked fine, but ural dal can be easily found at an Indian grocery store along with the curry leaves and fenugreek, which is seasonally available. 

2 cups (packed) fenugreek (methi) leaves
2 lbs small, organic, red-skinned potatoes
2 tablespoons safflower or canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon urad dal
5-6 curry leaves
sea salt
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

Trim the stems from the fenugreek and wash thoroughly.  Wash the potatoes and chop into even-sized cubes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  Add the cumin seeds, caraway seeds (optional), urad dal, and curry leaves and fry for about a minute, or until the cumin seeds brown and become aromatic.  Add the chopped potatoes and fry, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through.

Remove the curry leaves.  Add sea salt to taste, then add the red chili, cayenne, and turmeric powders.  Stir to coat the potatoes with the spices.  Add the fenugreek leaves, stir to combine, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.  Serve hot on as a side dish or with Indian breads.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I woke up last night smelling of brown sugar or maple syrup and Google searches had me convinced I was pre diabetic. Then I found your article! I had eaten a store bought tikka masala sauce doctored up with dried fenugreek leaves. I buy them in a box and it says kasoori methi. I love the taste of it and sprinkle it on a lot of foods..never noticed the side effect til now!