Little hay popular from East Asia to Northern Europe
Fennel Seeds may be purchased either whole or ground. Fennel Seeds are added to many dishes that are both sweet and savory. Fennel is much sweeter and milder than anise and becomes even more discreet when cooked. Fennel Seeds are really fruits that are almost always called seeds, while erroneous it is a common custom. Fennel fruits are an ancient spice of the Mediterranean, known by the Greeks for three millennia. Originally from the Mediterranean, the plant’s popularity spread northward during the Middle Ages, when it was grown in monasteries. The genus name foeniculum (Latin for “little hay”) probably refers to the aroma of fennel and is the source of the name of fennel in many contemporary European languages. In the course of time, fennel usage spread both to the East and to the North, which is why fennel is now part of Northern European cookery as well as of East Asian cooking.
It is a necessary ingredient in Chinese five spice powder. Fennel is firmly rooted in Chinese cuisine, although it is hardly ever used alone, but always as a component in spice mixtures. Fennel is important in several regional cuisines of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Bengal, where it is part of the Indian five spice mix panch phoron. Fennel usage isn’t restricted to Bengal; it is used in Kashmir, where it is usually toasted; in Sri Lanka, toasted fennel fruits are one of the typical ingredients responsible for the subtle and complex aroma of fiery and chili laden curries. The toasting procedure not only increases the flavor, but also changes the character of fennel to a more spicy and less sweet tasting ingredient.
Fennel is very popular in recipes from Iran, Arabia and the Levant; it is also well established in Central Europe, mainly to flavor rye breads, where the combination of sweet fennel and earthy bread is particularly delightful. Fennel is also often used for pickled vegetables and herbed vinegar. Last but not least, fennel is part of many sweet pastries, though in some of these pastries, anise can be used instead of fennel, although the flavors will differ slightly.
Although a native of the Mediterranean, it is most typical for the cuisines of Southern Europe. It is used for meats and poultry, but even more often for fish and sea food. Fennel is popular in Southern France and often contained in the Provençal spice mixture herbes de Provence.
Italians are particularly fond of fennel, employing it for many different kinds of foods, e.g., for sausages (it’s just not Italian sausage without fennel seeds) or pasta sauces. It is often contained, together with the herbs thyme and oregano, in olive oil based marinades for vegetables and, sometimes, sea foods. The marinated vegetables are usually eaten as appetizers (antipasti), together with white bread and red wine.
Should you run out of Fennel seed you may use dill seed and caraway seed as substitutes and to a lesser extent, anise and star anise.