I was at a mall in Vadodara last week. The coronavirus infection cases have been rising somewhat steeply and are keeping pretty high, so malls are considerably emptier than they would be on a holiday. I was just there to pick up some coffee and food, before heading back home after running some errands. While there, I was walking around the open courtyard outside the mall. The courtyard would earlier be full of people, some jam-packed fun rides for kids, street-food stalls overcrowded with people waiting to get what they ordered, and there would not be any space at all to catch a breath. The pandemic has affected us all in different ways, after all.
While walking around leisurely outside the mall, standing next to the fountain, I was admiring the lovely flowers growing on the potted plants. And there, growing wild along with some adeniums, was what looked to me like fennel. I know fennel grows a lot in Gujarat, sometimes by the bunches even in the wild, but I didn’t really expect to see it like that in a mall courtyard cohabiting with an adenium. And there it was. So I did what I usually do. Click a picture, send it to my mom and my sister, and then call them up even before the picture reaches them. They confirmed my suspicions, it was indeed fennel, or what we call in Gujarati as ‘Valiyari’.
Commonly called in Hindi as ‘Saunf’, fennel seeds are a popular spice in India, especially in certain regions like Kashmir, Bengal, and Gujarat. In Gujarat, they also make for a very popular, almost addictive mouth-freshener, or what we call ‘mukhvaas’ eaten post-meal to remove the smell of food (garlic and chili and oil and all that) coming from one’s mouth, and also aid digestion.
To the untrained eye, fennel seeds can be easily confused with cumin seeds though they taste a world apart. However, fennel seeds are slightly bigger than cumin and have thicker ridges. Fennel works wonders for helping digestion and easing bloating, making it a popular post-meal intake.
Did you know that India is the world’s largest producer of fennel seeds?
As a child, I was always fascinated by the roasted fennel seeds served at the end of a meal at the restaurant. We did not have this custom at home generally. I would always look for the dhana daal – the roasted flattened coriander seed bits treated with salt, and end up being disappointed most times, as it was these fennel seeds that were served everywhere, not the dhana dal. But sometimes, restaurants would serve sugar coated fennel seeds and they were a treat to have. The only drawback – the bits that get stuck in the teeth and gums sometimes.
Going to the market was quite a ritual in the house, and dad would teach me how to buy the vegetables – what should be heavy, what should be light, what to pick, what to look for, and the like. And when the fennel harvest was in season, sometimes there would be a vendor or two selling freshly picked bunches of fennel. Dad would buy them for me, and later for my sister as well. We would have a fun time plucking the fennel seeds right off the stem and relish them for the whole day.
A lot of times when we would go on road trips, we would find fennel growing in the wild on farm borders or road sides, from where we could pluck and just relish the bunches. I personally find the fresh tender fennel seeds to taste better than the roasted, dried ones, but to each his own. Plus, it is super fun to pluck fennel off the stalk and have it.
What does fennel taste like?
Fennel seeds have a licorice-like taste, though a bit sweeter and less pungent than licorice.
There are two common variants of fennel seeds that grow in India – a darker fennel that grows in the region around Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and a lighter, rounder one that grows in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The latter is commonly used in the kitchen while the former one is commonly used as a mouth freshener.
What are fennel seeds used for?
Apart from making for a common breath-freshener, fennel seeds find a place of high regard in the Indian kitchen. They are used to flavor a very wide range of meats and sweets. Fennels seeds are very commonly used in Kashmiri cuisine. They form the key ingredient in the popular Kashmiri dish – Rogan Josh, giving it the trademark aniseed undertone. Kashmiri cuisine uses minimal amounts of cumin and coriander – two spices that the rest of the country uses in abundance. Instead, just about every dish in the cuisine uses fennel seeds. Whole fennel seeds are used all over India in pickles and chutneys alongside other spices like fenugreek, kalonji, ajwain, etc. giving it a nice mild pungent flavor. A lot of people also use it to flavor the typical Indian chai.
Fennel seeds are used to make a flavorful warm oil tempering for Indian dishes, to be used for curries and stir fries. You can also grind the dry roasted fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle and add them to a dish at the end, adding so much awesome flavor to the dish.
Fennel seeds are one of the five ingredients that make up the popular Bengali spice mix – Panch Phoran. Panch Phoran is made with a blend of, as the name suggests, five spices – fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, and fennel seeds, generally in equal parts.
In Gujarat, fennel seeds are added to curries and stews. People in this part of the country also make a delicious cool sherbet from the fennel seeds called Valiyari nu Sherbet. This sherbet commonly mixed with black raisins and some sugar is a great summer beverage. Both black raisins and fennel are known for their cooling & soothing properties. However, some people also make the sherbet without the raisins.
Fennel seeds are also used by the Chettiars down south in the state of Tamil Nadu. Fennel seeds are commonly sauteed along with cumin seeds, coriander seeds, poppy seeds, cloves, cinnamon, coconut, and chilies on low heat. Once sauteed, they are allowed to cool after which they are ground on a flat basalt rock. This spice mix is quite special in Chettiar cuisine and is added to a range of meat and vegetable dishes. In fact, chettiar cuisine is characterized by the unique flavor imparted by their use of cumin and fennel.
Does your house traditionally use fennel seeds? What dishes do you add it to? Do you you like having fennel seeds as a mouth freshener? Like me, do you like the tender fennel seeds straight off the stalks? Tell me in the comments or find me on Instagram – @banjaranfoodie.
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