Did you know that some of the best-quality fennel seeds come from Lucknow? The Lucknowi fennel seeds are smaller in size, sweeter in taste and more aromatic than varieties grown elsewhere.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think fennel seeds is mukhwaas. Are mouth fresheners after a meal unique to the subcontinent? Be it paan with areca nuts and gulkand or the myriad of mukhwaas made using a variety of spices and seeds, there is a whole range to choose from. Go to any exhibition with miscellaneous stalls and you are bound to find a couple that sell a mind-boggling variety of mukhwaas and chooran.
I can think of many reasons why mukhwaas is seen as a good way to end a meal. Spices like fennel and cardamom are known for their carminative and digestive properties. It’s the Indian equivalent of offering a liquor or dessert to end the meal. It is also a good way to socialise and sit around for a bit with family or friends, like a bunch of relatives sitting together around the vetthalai (betel leaves tray) after the heavy wedding lunch, analysing it to bits. It also works as a physical end to the meal, like brushing your teeth at night; you wouldn’t want to eat anything after it. Given that most Indian food is full of strong flavours, what better mouth freshener than stronger flavours as a way to counter food breath?
But hands down the best benefit of keeping a box of home-made mukhwaas handy is that it can substitute for something sweet after a meal. It takes a while to chew on a spoonful of mukhwaas and by then the craving to eat something sweet is gone.
The simplest mukhwaas you can make is roasting fennel seeds on a low flame until aromatic. This will crisp up on cooling. Store in an airtight container. Other additions to this could be any of the following—ajwain (carom seeds), sesame seeds, dhana dal (roasted and pounded coriander seeds), flax seeds, dried, chopped paan leaves to make a delightfully crunchy fragrant mix to chew on.
Panch phoron, a Bengali five-spice mix, is the perfect example of an ensemble cast in the culinary world starring fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, nigella seeds and celery seeds. Each spice shares equal importance and the screen-time equivalent in a dish, with no one spice dominating the narrative. All five spices contribute to the final dish in their own way, the way Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini and Jaya Bachchan contributed to Sholay. A teaspoon of panch phoron added to hot ghee or oil releases a medley of aromatic compounds and essential oils, giving it a signature Bengali flavour. It is typically used to flavour vegetables, dals, curries and chutneys.
Fennel is an important spice in Kashmiri food too—lightly roast the fennel seeds on a low flame, stirring continuously until the moisture has evaporated and it becomes crisp. Once cooled, grind the roasted fennel to a fine powder. Pass it through a fine meshed sieve and grind the remaining coarse powder again. Don’t run it in the mixer for long and repeatedly as the heat from the grinding will kill some of the aroma. The last remaining coarse fennel can be used in masala chai or herbal teas.
In many Kashmiri dishes, fennel and ginger powder are used as the main flavouring spices. In the absence of onions and tomatoes in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine, these finely ground spice powders also help thicken the curry base and act as a binder to prevent yogurt-based curry bases from splitting.
SAUFIYA PANEER TIKKA
For the marinade
One-third cup thick yogurt
2 tsp roasted besan (gram flour)
Half tsp salt
Half tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1 tsp freshly ground fennel powder
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp crushed kasoori methi
Quarter tsp green cardamom powder
2 tsp melted ghee
1 large green capsicum
Sprig of coriander
In a large bowl, combine the ingredients for the marinade until well mixed. Cut the paneer into six cubes. Deseed and cut the capsicum into large squares. Marinate both the paneer and the capsicum in the yogurt marinade for 10 minutes in the refrigerator.
Skewer a piece of capsicum followed by a cube of paneer, such that each skewer has three pieces of paneer and capsicum. Make two such skewers.
In an oven, preheated at 180 degrees Celsius, bake for 10 minutes or until golden spots appear on the surface.
Remove and garnish with a sprinkle of chaat masala and coriander leaves. Serve with thinly sliced onions and green chutney.
Makes around one and a half cups
200g fat green chillies; wash and dry
3 tbsp mustard oil
Half tsp cumin seeds
Half tsp fennel seeds
Quarter tsp carom seeds
Quarter tsp asafoetida
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp fennel powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
Juice of one lemon
Slice off the stems of the chillies and cut into one-inch-long pieces. Heat the mustard oil in a pan until smoking. Lower the flame. Fry cumin, fennel and carom seeds for a few seconds and then stir in the asafoetida. Add the chillies and stir continuously over a high flame for two-three minutes.
Now add the salt, fennel powder, turmeric powder and lime juice. Stir to coat the chillies well with the spices. Cook over a low flame for 10-12 minutes, until the moisture is dried up and the chillies are cooked but retain a mild crunch.
Transfer to a bowl or a jar. Cover and refrigerate. Use within two-three days as a condiment along with any Indian meal.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.