Native to Mediterranean soils, the fennel plant has long been in use for culinary purposes; as a vegetable, as a spice, as an herb with an impressive portfolio of medicinal purposes, and even as a prime ingredient in the making of absinthe – this rotund little herb is, in every way, an all-rounder. No pun intended, of course.
With a life-span of over two years, the fennel plant is perennial in nature, a sturdy herb with tiny yellow blossoms and feathery, dill-like leaves. It grows wild along roadsides, often times also taking up the soils of open pastures. Certain developments consider this resilient plant a weed – after all, it propagates easily by seed, and these are as common to fennel as leaves on a weeping willow. Yet, the fennel plant remains a delicious addition to the culinary arts, a princely ingredient of numerous uses.
The fennel bulb is highly aromatic, the flavour of which is reminiscent of anise and black liquorice with faint notes of cabbage. The stalks resemble sticks of celery in both appearance and texture – chopped up and thrown into stocks, no one would tell the difference. Its fronds are far in flavour from dill, though commonly used as both herb and garnish. Useful plant? You bet. One would think it had no more uses beyond this already-impressive list.
Think again. Fennel seeds are traditionally used in the cuisines of the world – Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, and Indian to name a prominent few. It features in North European breads and Italian sausages, and is an important element of the much-used Chinese five-spice powder. If you believe yourself an ardent foodie, it is likely you have tasted this spice in one way or another. It is, after all, ubiquitous.
Historically, fennel has enjoyed much use amongst various cultures – not surprising, given its list of assumed properties. Ancient Egyptians revered the spice as both food and medicine. The Greeks told stories of the titan Prometheus, who, in his quest for human advancement is said to have stolen fire from the gods using nothing but the stalk of the fennel. Outside literature and myth, however, Greek athletes used the plant to keep up their strength while simultaneously keeping their weight in check. The Chinese and the Hindus used the plant as a remedy for snake bites and scorpion stings. The ancient Romans believed fennel to possess energising properties, providing stamina and promoting good eyesight. Extensively used as a weight-loss supplement due to its appetite-suppressing properties, fennel was also the go-to cure for stomach aches as well as indigestion. So strong and widespread is this belief, that the herb is still used to this very day, eaten at the end of every meal in parts of India and Pakistan to aid digestion and to freshen the breath.
As a vegetable, the fennel bulb nonetheless holds its own against the value of its seeds as perceived by our ancestors. It certainly cannot be denied that fennel seeds today are still used for a variety of medicinal purposes – and this is besides its prowess as a digestive aid. Fennel infusions are used as anti-microbial solutions, commonly employed in battling bacteria the likes of Staphylococcus and E. coli. Fennel juice is used in the production of expectorants for coughs, while breastfeeding mothers are commonly advised to chew fennel seeds to improve milk production and also to relieve menstrual pains.
The bulb, however, when incorporated into meals as a vegetable provides for the human body in a different way. Nutritionally, it is a sugar and cholesterol-free source of dietary fibre, and is high in calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin C. In a nutshell, integrating this delicious vegetable into your diet will build on the strength of your bones and teeth, improve nerve functions and curb the rise of your blood pressure. It will also help to protect against cell damage while aiding in the healing of wounds and the fighting of infections. All these benefits, at just 73 calories per bulb.
Cooked just right, the flesh of the fennel bulb becomes a sweetish addition to gratins, soups and roasts. Finely mince it as you would an onion, then fold the resultant bits into risotto and sauces. Cut layers of the bulb into thin strips and toss in with your favourite salads. However you choose to slice and dice it, this crisp vegetable is easily incorporated into your everyday meals.
The next time you find yourself searching for something new in grocery aisles, give this little fellow a try. You’ll definitely be surprised, and pleasantly so.