The humble Indian mukhwas is also the main ingredient in absinthe — while being a common herb in the West, and a popular vegetable around the Mediterranean. The fennel truly is a global ingredient
As a child, I used to be quite taken in with fennel seeds. Bengalis call fennel “mouri”, far removed from the Urdu “saunf”. While we never had the tradition of chewing on fennel seeds after meals — my father prefers roasted ajwain or carrom seeds instead — I used to love hoarding a palmful at Indian restaurants, after meals, where they used to be served with tiny cubes of mishri, before commercial candied-saunf mouth fresheners became popular. But for Bengalis, unlike most of the north, the fennel seed is not restricted to just being a mouth freshener. It is one of the primary spices of a Bengali kitchen, an indispensable part of the Paanch Phoron, or the five-spice “chhaunk” or temper. As a spice, fennel seeds are also quite extensively used down south, especially in Malayali cooking, and also often in Gujarati cuisine.
This is a good time to inform the uninitiated, that referring to it as the fennel “seed”, is rather a misnomer. What we use is actually the fruit of the fennel plant. The fruit is green when fresh, later shrivelling in girth, turning a brownish-grey, and hardening slightly. I guess it is human nature to equate “seed” to anything that is “minuscule”. The fennel fruit has a funny herbaceous sweetness to it that is unmatched by any other in the herb family. The sweetness is heady, not blunt like sugar, but has a lusciously warm quality to it, like dark chocolate, or peppermint. While most of India does not necessarily consume the fennel plant — Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh have a tradition of consuming the leaves like saag preparations — the West loves the umami flavours of the fennel leaves with grills and roasts. In the Middle East and along the coasts of the Mediterranean, the bulbous root is charred and grilled as a delicious vegetable, much like how leek or celery is cooked. The dried fruit is rarely used as a spice, or is used as a fine powder if at all, to add a warm, caramel-y whiff of sweetness. The other spices of the aniseed family, especially the star anise, finds more favour due to its robust smoky-sweetness, and is, quite literally, the star of Christmas roasts, cakes, puddings, and mulled wines, pairing beautifully with cinnamon, nutmeg, boozy dry fruits, poultry, and chocolate.
The fennel is subtle. In the Bengali Paanch Phoron, it adds a hint of sweetness to the five-flavour profile of the spice mix — Radhuni seeds (a variety of carrom seeds, indigenous to the east) lends the aroma and pungency (certain varieties also use mustard instead of Radhuni due to unavailability to mirror the effect), fenugreek adds bitterness, nigella seeds (kaalo jeere) add a nutty-woody flavour, cumin brings some heat to the table, and fennel rounds it up with its subtle sweetness. Many vegetarian dishes and curries use only the Paanch Phoron and seasoning as ingredients — that is how well-rounded and complete the spice mix’s flavour profile is. Each of them has a unique contribution, and a dish would be incomplete with even one of them, hence, making replication with alternatives that much more difficult. The fennel is used in Malayali cooking to play this same role of balancing in dishes that are heavy on hot spices. But, in my experience, the fennel loses its potency and flavour when blended into a paste, and lends more value when fried in oil. That slight sweetness and neutralising quality has made it a valued condiment for desi mouth fresheners, paan, and mukhwas. The Nawabs used to, supposedly, order every tiny fruit to be coated in gold leaf. Today, of course, they are commercially candied.
The true essence of fennel was actually discovered by the Swiss and the French, when they created absinthe. The “Green Fairy”, concocted primarily with wormwood, anise, and fennel (often referred to as the Holy Trinity), along with other herbs including peppermint and coriander, had captured the imagination of a generation of artists, who hyped it up to legendary status as the most bohemian drink ever. While it truly is a potent hallucinogenic if consumed in more-than-moderate quantities, as a spirit, absinthe is possibly one of the most delicious of the lot. A sensory experience, absinthe is warm, almost liquorice-like sweet, with a heady bouquet of aromas, and makes for a fantastic addition to whisky cocktails. Here’s my own recipe, that has always proven to be a hit: Wash the glass with absinthe, add a smoky-woody variety of whisky, some sweet Vermouth, a hint of Angostura bitters, an orange peel squeeze along the rim, some maraschino cherries, and top it all up with sparkling water or ice. Or, you can always drink it like a true Bohemian (this is also how I prefer it) — Take a shot of absinthe in a goblet. Soak a sugar cube in alcohol, flame it, and drop it into the goblet. Let the Absinthe toast for a few seconds and then chase it with ice cold water. Also called the “cooked method” of drinking absinthe, this is the liquor in its most potent form.
As a tempering ingredient or a herb, a root vegetable or a mouth freshener, in Bengali curries or Bohemian hallucinations, everybody loves the fennel.