(Foeniculum vulgare) Native to
southern Europe and Asia, fennel is used as a vegetable and herb in
Europe but in Asia only the seeds are used. The flavor is distinctly
aniseed, and the seed is like a larger, paler version of cumin seed.
There is a variety known as Lucknow fennel in which the seeds are about
half the length of common fennel and olive green compared with the
yellowish-green of the larger variety.
The seeds of fennel are sometimes referred
to as 'sweet cumin', perhaps because of their similar appearance -
certainly not for any flavor similarity. Whole fennel seeds are part of
Bengali panch phora, a mixture of five aromatic seeds. It is used in far
smaller amounts than are cumin and coriander. In some dishes its sweet
aroma is a distinguishing factor and the toasted and ground seeds are
given a more prominent role. The cooks of Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri
Lanka use fennel as one of the spices which go to make their complex
In India, the seeds are included in the
after-dinner chew of betel leaf as a digestive as well as a breath
freshener on their own or sugar-coated and colored. In China, fennel may
be used in place of aniseed in five-spice powder.
For medical uses, fennel was relied on more
heavily in times gone by. The renowned herbalist Culpeper wrote that the
seeds were used in medicines to relieve wheezing and shortness of
breath. The seeds are chewed or a tea brewed from them as an aid to cure
stomach ache and constipation, regulate menstruation and increase breast
milk. They are combined with root extract for a diuretic aid to
slimming. Research seems to indicate that fennel can help in cases of
liver damage as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. As an aid to
cleansing the skin, gentle steaming over water in which fennel seeds and
leaves have been boiled is said to be effective.