Arabs throughout history had an uncanny ability to incorporate foods with medicinal properties into dishes. Many times superfoods like fenugreek are not palatable and almost bitter on their own. But the health properties of fenugreek are too massive to ignore, so Palestinians figured out how to put this seed into a popular cake called Hilbeh.
Hilbeh is a Palestinian cake (also popular in Lebanon and Syria) that uses farina, or cream of wheat, along with fenugreek seeds. The cake’s rustic texture is reminiscent of namoura (semolina cake) but it is vegan since it doesn’t use any dairy or butter. The fat of choice is olive oil, which soaks in with the farina and flour overnight to ensure extra flavor throughout. Hilbeh is not to be confused with the Yemenese Hilbah, which is a frothy condiment also containing fenugreek seeds used as a condiment with soups and stews.
Fenugreek seeds have also been used in ancient Indian and Chinese medicine for millennia. Holistic doctors credit fenugreek for increasing lactation and alleviating PMS and menopausal symptoms in women, increasing testosterone for men, soothing sore throat, and even fighting colon cancer. Since the seed is rather bitter when eaten alone or boiled in a tea, Indians actually chew on fenugreek seeds with a colorful candy coating after meals for better digestion and to cleanse the palate.
My mother-in-law, Auntie Reva, who is now in her mid 80s, still manages to find a way to make treats for the family whenever she has the energy. I can’t recall a single time that she bought processed sweets, always preferring to bake an Arab treat with ingredients that were familiar to her. She soaks the fenugreek overnight, to ensure a milder flavor and more digestibility. Soaking the seeds also removes lectins, or anti-nutrient proteins that can inhibit mineral absorption. This is an ancient dessert that she has made at least twice a year since I have known her, and I wanted to preserve that special time with her in the video below: