Saturday, 13 May 2017

Fabulous Fenugreek

Your Saturday Blogger returns after a two-week hiatus. Blackpool Supporters' Trust claimed my time and energies in the lead up to the end of the football season. You'd think that after a couple of weeks away I'd come back inspired...but the theme is Herbs And Spices and it didn't really grab me. Nevertheless, I need to get back on track.

Fortunately, watching the BBC MasterChef finals this week has helped. I think it's great that Saliha Mahmood-Ahmed won - such a talented and unassuming young woman and her fusion of eastern and western cuisine was mouth-wateringly inspiring. Quite how she managed to keep on top of being on MasterChef, raising a two year old son and being a junior doctor in a busy Hertfordshire hospital I really don't know, but she smashed it, clever girl. I liked the fact that she'd written out detailed plans and flow-charts to aid her in the MasterChef kitchen... and did you see how many herbs and spices she used? Fantastic. (Watch it in catch-up mode if you missed out.)

Like Jill Reidy (our recent Sunday Blogger), I too went on an Indian cookery course a few years ago. Mrs Patel was most exacting. We had to wash our rice four or five times and then put it in hot oil for a minute before adding water. We learned how to make bhatura, puri, vura and various bhajis in addition to kidney bean curry (shahi rajma), dahls and meat curries. I still occasionally devote a day to knocking out a great curry. Methi Gosht is my favourite dish, so I thought I should wax enthusiastic about its keynote ingredient, the fabulous Fenugreek (methi in Hindi).

Is it a herb? Yes. Is it a spice? Again yes - so that's both boxes ticked right off. It's also a vegetable, a fodder crop for livestock, a source of green dye and a traditional medicine into the bargain. Tell me more, I imagine you saying - and so I shall...

To start with a bit of etymology, the name comes from the Middle French word fenugrec, which in turn derived from the Latin faenum Graecum, literally "Greek hay". It was certainly cultivated in Greece and thoughout the Middle East in classical times and was used both as a vegetable and a medicine. Fenugreek seeds have been recovered from bronze-age sites in Iraq (circa 4000 BC) and were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Various components of the fabulous fenugreek plant
Nowadays, India is the biggest producer of fenugreek (and 80% of its crop is grown in Rajasthan). Other notable sources are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, France, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Spain and Turkey, though interestingly not Greece.

As a vegetable (or legume, because it is a member of the bean family), its fresh leaves, sprouts and microgreens are used in salads, giving a distinctive sweet aroma. As a herb, its fresh or dried leaves are used to flavour curries and stews, especially in Indian and Persian dishes. As a spice, its seeds are used to flavour breads, soups, stews and pickled vegetables. I remember having pitta bread in Egypt that had been made from maize flour and fenugreek seeds.

The medicinal properties of fenugreek (which derive from the presence of saponins) include its anti-inflammatory effects, its ability to reduce cholesterol levels and its ability to treat digestive disorders.

All told, it is a most versatile and beneficial plant and we should probably be tucking into great mouthfuls of the stuff on a regular basis. When I lived down south, I used to know where to buy fresh fenugreek (or methi). I need to find a reliable supplier in the jewel of the north.

Don't go expecting a poem about fabulous fenugreek. There's no way on God's earth that is going to happen. However, I have been working on something inspired (not quite the right word, but you know what I mean) by the recent rise in the incidence of spice zombies. Let me explain.

'Spice' is a synthetic cannabinoid, devised to produce the same artificial rush of endorphins as cannabis or ecstasy. However, it is much more potent and reacts more strongly with the brain's receptors. It has been described as having the physically addictive qualities of heroin and the psychologically addictive qualities of crack. Until a year ago it was a legal 'high' and was sold in a more or less controlled way through high street 'head' shops and mail order businesses. I'm not condoning its use, by the way, just stating the facts.

In May 2016 the government, in its far from infinite wisdom, introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act which made the sale of spice illegal. Predictably two things have happened in the intervening twelve months: firstly, whatever quality control there was has gone, so the recipe for the drug is unpredictable and increasingly potent; secondly, the supply chain has become criminalised and moved wholesale to the streets (and parks, squares, playgrounds) of every town and city.

The effects of spice can be bizarre and frightening. It is a drug capable of inducing seizures and psychotic episodes and can render users temporarily zombified - as TV footage from Manchester (where 90% of rough sleepers are spice users) has shown recently. Users freeze slumped in the street, unable to move or speak - sometimes for up to half an hour - and then just unfreeze, get up and shamble away. It's most unnerving to see and is causing a strain on paramedic and police services as its use reaches epidemic proportions in some areas.

It is a situation that the former drugs tsar Professor Nutt had warned the government about when he opposed the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act: "The whole thing was utterly predictable. The trade has passed from the head shops to the street dealers - and on the black market people don't care whether their 'customers' live or die. The Home Office have closed their minds to the reality of what is going on - and have done for a very long time." Home Secretary Amber Rudd was invited up to Manchester to see the problem for herself - but the calling of a General Election intervened.

This is the poem. I'm not sure about it - it's still a work in progress but presentable enough to grace the blog. If you don't know the legend of Pandora's box, Google it.

Pandora's Spicebox
Paradise was lost
the day Pandora's spicebox
was prised open.
The lid was scored,
its contents poured
evil into the world.

We are the zombie plague,
pale, weak, wasted people
caught in a spice nightmare,
blighting your cities
and living our hell on earth.


But please,
don't spout your strong and stable stuff
in our faces, on our turf
where the pimps are running the playground;
and don't spin us any fables.

We know we are nothing worth,
we who steal to get by,
we who deal to get high,
we who screw to survive - and for what?
Life is shit in our sewer.

Sure, we can scrabble around
at the bottom looking for hope
but to our utter dismay
all that's left is dope.

Thanks for reading. Eat well, stay clean, be healthy, Steve ;-)


Anonymous said...

I live in Manchester and I see these spice zombies nearly every day. Its wierd and unsettling. I hope the new mayors initiatiuve on tackling homelessness will help. It doesn't get to the root of the problem thoiug.

Anonymous said...

The poem is a bit negative don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Probably only as negative as the people who "use it"

Steve Rowland said...

I hope the poem evokes a little of the state of mind of those who are caught in the bind, which is not a good place to be. Realistic rather than negative. S

Anonymous said...

I think it's a right-on blog. Criminalising hasn't sorted the problem just changed it. Clever poem too.