Saturday, 16 July 2016

Tasting Jerusalem #38 – Fenugreek

Dee – It’s been a while since we last cooked anything from the Jerusalem cook book; A quick check of the blog revealed it to be April 2016, so with the announcement of July 2016’s featured ingredient, Fenugreek, we decided to take on two of Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipes.

Fenugreek is a powerful ingredient in any of its forms; as a herb, as seeds or as a ground spice, and has an unmistakable flavour which, in England at least, is synonymous with curry powder and the sauce in Coronation Chicken.  However, there is evidence of it having been cultivated in Egypt, the Levant and Iraq since biblical times, and it is perhaps in this region where its origins lie.

Lamb Shawarma
To start with this month’s feature, we used fenugreek seeds which were lightly toasted and then ground up with a few other spices to make a marinade for the Lamb Shawarma recipe on page 210.  The marinade also included olive oil, fresh herbs and seasoning, and was rubbed into the meat before it was roasted in the oven.  We used lamb leg steaks rather than the whole leg specified in the recipe, mainly because of cost, and we scaled down the quantity of marinade accordingly.

As the commentary accompanying the recipe pointed out, we hadn’t made a truly authentic shawarma as to do so would have required a huge rotating spit to cook the meat on, but our scaled down, home-made version was still enjoyed very much by both of us.

Shawarma is not an elegant, or particularly photogenic dish, so I took photographs of it in its deconstructed and final constructed forms.  As the pictures above show, we prepared lots of garnishes and condiments for the meat, and I baked pita breads to serve it all in.  We achieved a very nice balance of light and heavy flavours and textures, and there was no one ingredient which dominated.  Even the Fenugreek was a subtle addition to the marinade covering the meat.  The salad was a very simple affair of tomatoes, courgettes and coriander, which we thinly sliced rather than chopping it all into small cubes as we normally do.  This, and the tahini sauce were the ‘light’ elements of the dish, wheras the marinated meat, its roasting juices and the tomato and harissa mixture used to line the inside of the pita pockets before the other ingredients were added, made up the ‘heavy’ elements.

This, and the Chicken Shawarma recipe which was featured on the Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast television series, are both favourites of ours, and although neither of us have visited Jerusalem (yet), these shawarmas seem to showcase Jerusalemite street food at its best.  Needless to say, we will be making them again.

Helbeh (Fenugreek Cake)
We couldn’t leave a feature on Fenugreek without sampling the Fenugreek Cake, or Helbeh.  Yes, it is indeed a sweet cake with fenugreek in it.  The recipe is on page 290.  Surely no one would take a cake that tasted of curry seriously would they?  We had to see for ourselves.

The fenugreek in this recipe was used in its seed form, the seeds being boiled in water before being added to the cake batter.  Boiling the seeds gave them a soft, almost gelatinous texture, making the flavour less punchy as bites were taken from the cake.

Making the cake turned out to be a real comedy of errors.  First, I couldn’t find any finely ground semolina, so had to use the coarse ground variety, but even worse than that, I didn’t read the recipe properly and used far too much water in the cake batter.  I decided to press on rather than start again, and managed to drain much of the excess water away through a sieve.  My use of coarse semolina may have saved me here, as I was able to bring the mixture back under control before it went into the oven to be baked.
Fortunately, the cake came out of the oven in well baked form, with the ‘skewer test’ working on the first attempt.

There was no sugar, or any sweet ingredients, used in the cake batter.  What made it a dessert was the syrup which was used to soak it.  This was made from sugar, water, rosewater and orange blossom water.  It seemed at first that there was far too much syrup for the cake, but after a few applications of a little at a time, it eventually all soaked in.

I left the cake for a day before tasting it, as specified in the recipe, and braced myself for a whole new taste sensation.  And it certainly delivered on that front.  Texture wise it was moist from the syrup, but also ever so slightly crunchy from the coarse semolina.  Flavour wise it was a combination that defied my expectations:  The fenugreek flavour was very much in evidence, much more so than in the savoury shawarma, but so too were the rose water and orange blossom water.  None of this should have worked together but it did.  The sweet syrup acted as a counterbalance to the dry cake and spicy fenugreek, and I found it to be an ideal accompaniment to a cup of unsweetened black coffee.

Jay took some of it into work where it received more mixed reviews, and I don’t think it is something that I would offer to anyone who didn’t express an interest in trying it, but Jay and I both considered it a success and I am happy to sign off on that note.

“Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ebury Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to  following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook Page or joining our Google+ Community and finally checking out all of our groups’ dishes on Pinterest

(Please note: I have listed the UK publisher and have linked to the UK Amazon site.  The US details are provided on the web site)


  1. Also one of your best write-ups - love all the flavor details and history. Your steadfastness in not redoing the cake, but saving it, is also inspiring. Love the idea also of showing fenugreek applied in both a sweet and savory way. You've obviously worked your way through any writer's block that might have plagued you of late. Bravo!

    1. Thank you for the positive feedback. I should try the cake again using the correct measurements to see how differently it turns out.
      Looking forward to next month's feature.