Fennel: Elevate your cooking game

20 Sep 2023

Fennel can seem enigmatic at first glance. With its unique aniseed flavour and a bit of confusion about using it, it's often overlooked in the kitchen. But its subtle sweetness can complement many dishes. When it's raw, it adds a nice crunch, and when cooked, it turns mellow and soft. Now is the time to make fennel a part of your culinary repertoire...

In a Nutshell

Plant Tales

From Rome to Royalty: The fennel plant originated in the southern Mediterranean region. To the ancient Romans, it was a symbol of success and fennel leaves were used to crown victors in games. In France, fennel was valued by Emperor Charlemagne, who required its cultivation on all imperial farms. And in 13th-century England, it was considered a royal spice, served to kings with fruit, bread and in dishes such as pickled fish.

Spice, herb or vegetable? Fennel is all three - all parts of the plant are used. Depending on the variety, the bulbous base is eaten like a vegetable, the feathery fronds are used as an herb and the aromatic seeds can be used as a spice and for essential oil extraction. It belongs to the Apiaceae family, alongside cumin, dill, carrot, celery and anise.

A bee favourite! Growing fennel supports the conservation of beneficial insects in ecosystems. The flowers are very attractive to many beneficial insects including bees, small wasps, lacewings and butterflies.

Ancient knowledge: Fennel has a long history of use in traditional medicine for digestive, endocrine and respiratory health. Herbal practitioners use it in women’s health to promote menstruation and facilitate birth. It’s also used to relieve digestive discomfort, such as nausea, low appetite and pain. In many parts of India, it’s common to chew fennel seeds after meals as mukhwas to help digestion and freshen the breath. (Badgujar et al. 2014)

Do scientific studies support these benefits? 

Research Digest

In human studies, fennel extract was associated with improved:

Menopausal symptoms: Supplementation with fennel extract improved menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and sleep, as per 2 meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials. (Lee et al. 2021Khadivzadeh et al. 2018)

Menstrual pain: Fennel extract effectively reduced menstrual pain intensity, according to a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. (Xu et al. 2020)

Osteoarthritis: In a small trial of 66 patients with knee osteoarthritis, fennel seed extract improved knee pain intensity compared to placebo. (Alazadeh et al. 2020)

How much? The studies used capsules with fennel extract, ranging from 120 mg to 800 mg per day.

More to come: There were only a few studies available and they had small sample sizes and methodological concerns.   Plus, most research looked at fennel extract in the form of a capsule, so we’re not yet sure how it translates to whole fennel as part of our diet. The investigation continues…

Fennel is a source of:

  • Dietary fibre
  • Potassium, phosphorus and calcium
  • Polyphenols, such as caffeic acid, gallic acid and apigenin
  • Phytoestrogens

Demystifying phytoestrogens: Fennel is reported to have estrogen-like activity due to its content of phytoestrogens, such as anethole. They are naturally occurring plant compounds with a similar function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects. Phytoestrogens are linked to various beneficial health effects, such as lower risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, brain function disorders and some cancers. (Noreen et al. 2022Rietjens et al. 2017)

Why does it taste like anise? Fennel, anise and star anise share the aromatic compound anethole, which gives these plants their similar taste and aroma. It exhibits various beneficial effects in lab studies, such as anticancer activity. (Badgujar et al. 2014)

Tasty Tips

Around the world, fennel is part of:

  • A Traditional Provençal fish soup called Bouillabaisse, usually served with garlic mayonnaise and toasted bread.
  • Sicilian Fennel and Orange Salad, often served at the end of a meal as a refreshment after rich lunches.
  • Indian Saunf Wali Chai or fennel infused tea, a post-dinner treat to aid digestion.

😋 5 ways to make the most of fennel

  1. As a buttery side dish: Roast sliced fennel in a baking tray with garlic, herbs, salt, pepper and olive oil. Serve with rocket and pistachios.
  2. In a creamy bean stew: Sauté finely sliced fennel with olive oil, onion, garlic, spices and other veggies. Add white beans, veg stock and simmer until thickened. Top with olive oil and lemon juice.
  3. In a crunchy salad: Finely slice and toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Leave to soften. Mix with nuts, fresh herbs, salad greens, white beans and olives or capers.
  4. In a slaw: Just like this one with apples, red onion, and red cabbage. A slaw is a perfect addition to salads, wraps, or sandwiches. Fennel’s sturdy nature often allows it to keep well in the fridge for a few days.
  5. Fennel tea: Make a soothing flavoursome tea with fennel seeds.

🍽 Recipes for the week



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