Fennel as a Vegetable and Herb

Fennel as a Vegetable and Herb

(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 curries.

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.

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