Fennel seeds are wonderful little spices and have a subtle sweet taste unlike their counterparts. They’re used extensively in South Asian, Middle-Eastern and western world cuisines. India being a land that loves savory dishes, fennel wouldn’t be normally expected to receive a warm welcome into culinary uses. But it has. In fact, fennel has carved it’s place in endless local cuisines and countless different ways to amaze an Indian taste bud. These “licorice-like” sweet and aromatic seeds are an integral part of varied cooking styles — be it Kashmiri, Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, or many other state-cuisines.
“Saunf“, or fennel as it is known in most parts of India, has more than a few reasons to be loved and used in food. Ayurveda uses them to treat a number of ailments – digestive problems, cold, sore throat, anti-emetic, respiratory disorders, anti-ageing, gum-disease, and many more. Saunf is extensively used in several Indian home remedies too and is thought to be a good detox cleanser. The best and perhaps the most popular use of fennel seeds in India is as a “Mukhwas” or an after-meal mouth-freshener.
I remember as a child how much I loved picking up those multi-colored candy coated fennel from the little bowls at restaurants in India. O, they usually serve many fennel based mouth-fresheners there — the seeds with rock sugar, or ones that are candy-coated, or a roasted aromatic blend of seeds containing fennel or just the plain seeds. Dry roasting fennel lessens their sweet quotient and introduces a very rustic, tannin-like and sharp smoky aromatic flavor to it. These’re often coupled with roasted flax seeds. Serving amazing and uncommon fennel-based blends, are still a highlight at many Indian eateries. Some of the restaurants would specially ship large quantities of an extraordinary blend of fennel, from somewhere they’d not reveal to you!
Ma was specially a fan of the roasted seed blend. Many many years ago, the small town I grew up in, did not have a supply of ready-to-eat roasted fennel Mukhwas. Ma didn’t have a choice. but to ask and borrow some from our local restaurants that got them from bigger cities. As a ritual, she would tie a handful of them in her eternally starched-clean-and-white handkerchief, and bring them home. They would last her a couple more servings later. But I loved the candy-coated ones. For some reason, I’ve always called them “sugar-coated” saunf…may be because they were so pleasantly appealing to me? Whatever was the reason, I don’t know. But I was almost addicted to them at one time in my life. After a tummy full of dinner (every time that we ate out), my brother and I would each have more than a handful of them stuffed in our mouths plus two hands-full more reserved for mouth-refills during our car ride back home! Ma-Papa found it quite embarrassing and would always lecture us against it. But their two little kids would repeat it every time without fail and then promise never to do it again! Kids are kids and that’s exactly how we were that time.
Growing up very close to Lucknow, we were more used to the sweet, thin and more aromatic fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, called “Lucknowi Saunf” or “Vilayati Saunf” or “Patli bareek saunf” in India. Whereas, the more common variety, Pimpinella anisum is thicker and slightly woody in taste and is generally referred to as “Moti Saunf” or “Desi saunf“. I am not sure why a fennel variety grown in Lucknow region would be known as “Vilayati” — is it because they may have been introduced to India from another country? May be, but I don’t know enough to be certain.
Then at college, when I studied Pharmaceutical Sciences, we were taught Pharmacognosy, the science of medicinal drugs obtained from plants and other natural sources. And I read about Fennel. Today, I probably don’t remember most of the things I learnt in my classes then, but it was fun to read about fennel and it also saved my life in some way. Fennel are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and are great carminative agents that ease stomach-aches (related to digestive issues) and flatulence. They are also gentle, and therefore find extensive use as a chief component in newborn and infant colic relief solutions. During our practical laboratory examinations, we almost always has a ground-herbs analysis to do. Students were each provided with a small packet of unknown powdered mixture of plant parts with medicinal properties. We had to physically and chemically analyse and examine to determine the individual components of the blend. Tasting a minimal amount was one way of physically testing the powdered mix, along with observing the texture, colors, etc. The sweet taste of Fennel and licorice were a stark contrast to their mostly bitter (and immensely bitter) counterparts — the worst being Rhubarb (no wonder its an emetic agent!) You cannot miss the taste of Fennel and Licorice and they were huge saviors for us in these analytical tests. A few satisfied faces and rested eyebrows among most others with a disgust on face and furrowed brows. Yes, the face reveals what you eat! Most drugs are bitter, but you’d know how many in the examination hall got a fennel or a licorice in their ‘guess what’ blend. One prominent difference in the taste of fennel and licorice is that fennel has a sweet after taste, while licorice is sweeter but has a slightly bitter after-taste that lasts for a while.
While in India, I did not know about any other part of the fennel plant that could be consumed. But after I came to the US, I learnt that all parts of a fennel plant were in fact edible. Especially Finocchio or Florence Fennel, that is cultivated in the Americas and Europe. This variety has swollen leaf bases that resemble a white onion bulb. The stalks, the fronds (the leafy portions) as well as the bulb can all be used in cooking. They are mildly sweet and compliments other ingredients of a dish beautifully, both as a vegetable, and as a seasoning herb or spice. The best part being, if you are in a place where you can’t get your hands on a Florence Fennel bulb, you could always substitute the flavor with fennel powder or paste. However, using the bulb, stalks and leaves, do provide some additional body to the dish. In the US, many store shelves labelled and sell Fennel bulbs as Anise for reasons not known to many food experts and gourmet chefs. I often get mine wrapped up as Anise too!
Nonetheless, here’s how I do my fennel chicken. I braise it at times and also bake it sometimes. Braising yields softer and moist chicken, whereas, baking results in a slightly drier version of this dish — both taste great, yet slightly different. The picture you see on this post is of my braised version. This dish is amazingly extraordinary in taste than the usual types of Chicken we make, and yet is mild in spice, subtle, rich aromatic, moist and succulent chicken soaked in lots of the delightful fennel flavor! Enjoy it with a zest of lime if you will.
- 3 lbs (about 1.5 kgs) Skinless boneless Chicken thigh fillets or medium-cut Chicken on bone pieces – washed clean
- 1 Florence fennel bulb — stalks and bulb sliced and the fronds reserved (If you can’t find fennel bulb, use 2 tbsp Saunf or Fennel seeds ground to paste, and reserve 2 tbsp of shredded coriander leaves)
- 1 medium onion — peeled and sliced
- 0.5 tbsp Garlic powder or paste
- 1 tbsp Ginger powder or paste
- 1 tbsp or more fresh ground Black Pepper (Kaali Mirch powder), as per taste
- 1 tsp Saunf or Fennel seeds ground to paste
- 1 tbsp Mushroom Soy sauce or regular Dark Soy sauce
- 0.5 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce (if you don’t have it, use 0.5 tsp sugar + 0.5 tbsp white vinegar as a workaround alternative)
- Salt to taste
- About 4-6 tbsp of light Olive oil for cooking/braising (less if baking)
— For Braised Fennel Chicken:
- Heat the oil in a wok or cooking pot over medium heat.
- Add Onion slices as well as slices of fennel bulb and stalk. Saute them together for about 2 minutes. (If you aren’t using fennel bulb, then only add and saute onion slices in this step.)
- Now put in the chicken pieces and fry for about 2-3 minutes.
- Add all other ingredients (ginger, garlic, fennel powder/paste, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and ground black pepper). Adjust salt.
- Give a nice stir to mix all ingredients together and cover cook until the chicken is almost done.
- Once the chicken is near-done, remove the lid and switch the stove to high-heat to evaporate and get rid of excess watery juices if any.
- Switch off the stove when done. By this time, the chicken pieces should have been moist, succulent, would have obtained a lovely golden-brown color coat and well cooked, and sans a flowy gravy.
- Transfer the fennel chicken to a serving plate and garnish with shredded fennel fronds that we reserved. Serve immediately.
— For Baked Fennel Chicken:
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (about 200°C).
- Grease a baking dish by brushing it with some olive oil.
- In a mixing bowl, toss and mix the chicken pieces with fennel bulb-stalk slices, onion, garlic, ginger, Worcestershire sauce, dark soy sauce, fennel powder/paste, ground black pepper and salt, so they are coat with the spices uniformly.
- Line them in a layer on the baking dish. Make sure the chicken is placed on the greased baking dish and the fennel and onion slices are evenly distributed.
- Drizzle a little olive oil on them, so the chicken retains back some moisture and don’t dry up too much.
- Bake for about an hour or until the fennel and onions are a little caramelized plus the chicken is cooked well and a food prick comes out clean and easy.
- Switch off the oven and take out the baking dish. Transfer the contents to a serving plate and garnish with shredded fennel fronds. Serve immediately.