“Doesn’t fenugreek make your sweat smell?” This was the question I received from an incredulous friend as I ate my lunch one workday in Lower Manhattan: this time, a sandwich in which I had included hilbeh, the Yemenite fenugreek paste. Indeed, many ask if the pungent spice will cause their sweat to be “nasty” or if the smell might be repulsive to potential partners. Others, perhaps, see a good sign in a partner that smells like fenugreek. I’ll leave the merits of a fenugreek- or not-fenugreek-scented paramour aside to come back to the fact that everyone agrees – and biology confirms – that fenugreek is a food that “smells,” and the hilbeh I am about to introduce has a whole aspect to it beyond its garlicky, pungent taste and delightfully gelatinous texture.
Before I continue, I should mention that hilbeh is one of the more fascinating dishes in the Jewish culinary canon. It is a jelly made from the ground and soaked seeds of the fenugreek plant, which has been cultivated in the Middle East since at least six thousand years ago. Fenugreek is mentioned as a typical food of the Galilee during the Second Temple period in Josephus and as common in the Mishnah, in which the plant is called tiltan. In Yemen, fenugreek, which is called hilbeh in the local variety of Arabic, became a basic part of everyday food: the dip hilbeh was and is eaten daily, and by some Yemenite Jews, at festivals as well. Even today, hilbeh is considered the mark of Yemeni identity among Jews and non-Jews alike. In the world of Jewish cooking, though, fenugreek is not a Yemenite spice alone. Fenugreek is common as a seasoning in North African, Iranian, and Turkish Jewish cooking, and also makes an appearance in the Jewish cuisines of South India. On Rosh HaShanah, many Sephardi Jews eat fenugreek as a matter of ritual – for one of the words for fenugreek in Hebrew and Aramaic, rubya, resembles the word that means “to increase in merit.”
It is a biological fact that fenugreek alters the smell of one’s sweat. Raw fenugreek contains sotolone – a chemical that causes your sweat to smell, faintly, of maple syrup once you consume it. Factories that process fenugreek can also emit this smell – as most famously discovered here in New York in 2009. (This smell is also why fenugreek shows up in imitation maple syrup.) The plant itself also has a particularly pungent odor. So, though delicious, fenugreek also carries the risk of changing one’s “body odor” – and many think for the worse.
Fenugreek is hardly alone in the realm of “smelly Jewish food” – every community has its foods, from odorous herrings and pickles in the Yiddish realm to the peppery sauces of Bukharan cuisine – that is, to say, more scented than Wonder Bread. (Your author politely points out, though, that the digestive aftereffects of Wonder Bread can be very malodorous indeed.) Yet fenugreek has also been one spice that is noted as pungent, in Israel and elsewhere in the Jewish community. Of course part of this is simply because fenugreek is pungent. But the lasting power is inseparable from the fact that fenugreek is strongly associated with the Yemenite community – whose food, like other non-Ashkenazi foods, was considered smelly and unsanitary for a long time, particularly in Israel. Thus I shall delve into a bit of history:
In 1950s Israel, the odors and scents of non-European cooking were heavily policed and societally scrutinized – even as those of Ashkenazi cooking were often given a “pass.” One could begin with the “reeducation” that governmental and quasi-governmental organizations like WIZO sponsored and sought to spread in the communities of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants to the new Jewish state – which largely meant pushing immigrants towards a Central or Eastern European norm of cooking. The State also subsidized European foodstuffs – like European bread – but not, for example, the Middle Eastern pita. Meanwhile, commentary on the “unsanitary” and “unhealthful” nature of non-European cuisine was common in the media, in education, in state policy, and from more established Ashkenazi residents of the state. This, of course, all happened in a context where state policy simultaneously selectively appropriated and reworked Arab Palestinian cuisine to create a separate “natural Israeli” culinary norm.” In all of this, scent was a major factor in the day-to-day policing of food. Arab Jewish food was “smelly,” “odorous,” “caused a stink.” The smells were associated with uncleanliness, a “lack of civilization,” and ultimately – race. Fenugreek was simply one part of this history: another Middle Eastern food whose smell was not suited for the “modern” Israeli table. Even as other Arab and Middle Eastern foods became popular among all groups in Israel later on, the idea of “smelliness” or “uncleanliness” remained strong – particularly for Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish food. A similar tendency exists in the United States, where an effective class ceiling exists for many so-called “ethnic cuisines” – fine for cheap eats, but not for an expensive dinner. Smell is a key part of that trend.
Smell is ultimately biological. But whose smell matters and whose foods’ smell matters is, like sweetness, inextricable from the racialized social and cultural context that embeds the people with whom a food is associated. Thus the odor of fenugreek, delicious as it is, is more weighted and in some ways more maligned than what many consider the equally malicious odors of brie cheese, fish and chips, mayonnaise, hamburgers, or something with the French mushroom paste duxelles. (Or, as one reader pointed out, herring in the Jewish context – may Hashem bless the non-Ashkenazim whose nasal functions have been temporarily destroyed by our pickled fish.) The fact that fenugreek is consumed by groups not at the top of the sociocultural hierarchy in Israel or the United States, and the fact that the consumption of such spices is highly ethnicized and racialized as “other,” means that the scent associated with fenugreek and its consumption thus becomes a marker of “otherness” and marginalization. And in comparison to the smelly foods of the less-maligned, there is also an element of class: after all, blue cheese is favorably racialized and made elite in a way fenugreek is not. Or, as Pierre Bourdieu might say, fenugreek is not part of an élite habitus. So, the next time you eat and smell fenugreek – or if you do so for the first time, think about how its smell is also a sign of power – or lack thereof.
And enjoy it – for fenugreek is delicious!
Here is a recipe for hilbeh, based on those of an amalgam of Hebrew-language recipes from Yemenite Jews.
Hilbeh (Fenugreek Paste)
2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds
2 cups hot water
1 large clove garlic
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white vinegar
1 red chili pepper, chopped, or 1 tsp strong chili powder
½ tsp coriander seeds
- Soak the fenugreek seeds in hot water, in a covered dish, for up to 24 hours. I sometimes stick the seeds into the fridge. The water will cool but needs to start off hot to bring out the fenugreek’s gelatinous quality.
- Drain the seeds and place into a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Blend until you have a frothy, unified mixture. If you’re using a mortar and pestle, grind the fenugreek and garlic first together, then add in the other ingredients. (In terms of time, I recommend the food processor.)
- Decant into a container and allow to sit for twenty minutes before serving, on bread. You can eat the hilbeh with samneh and/or z’houg. Hilbeh keeps, refrigerated, for about a week. I find that hilbeh is the perfect accompaniment to a fried egg.
Thank you to Tzeyeen Liew, Amram Altzman, Sumaya Bouadi, Mikaela Brown, Aaron David Lerner, and Yün-ke Chin-Stern for help with a few bits of this piece.