Jews have been eating fennel—a member of the carrot family with a similar texture to celery, and a mild aniseed or licorice flavor—since biblical times. Native to the Mediterranean, it was known to the ancient Israelites, who liked to use the shoots and feathery fronds in salads, while fennel seeds were often used as a spice, a medicine, and an insect repellent. In the Mishnah, fennel was referred to as gufnan, but in the Jerusalem Talmud and in modern-day Hebrew it is called shumar. It is also thought that fennel was the ketzach that is mentioned in Isaiah.
The Israelites were not the only ones who made use of the plant. The juice of giant fennel or Silphium (now extinct) was used by the ancient Egyptians as a form of contraception. Fennel was also much enjoyed by the Greeks and the Romans. (According to Greek mythology, Prometheus carried a burning ember, which he stole from the Chariot of the Sun, in the hollow stalk of giant fennel and so brought fire to mankind.) The Greeks believed fennel was a symbol of courage, victory, and success. Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides recommended fennel for all kinds of maladies, especially heartburn, nausea, menstrual disorders, and bladder and kidney problems; he further claimed that fennel increased the flow of milk in lactating mothers. Fennel seeds were also used as a remedy for snake bites.
The Romans also used fennel as a medicine, especially to improve eyesight and calm the nerves. Fennel tea was often given to Roman soldiers before battle, as they believed it gave courage and strength. Cato recommended seasoning olives with olive oil, vinegar, salt, fennel seed, and mastic.
For centuries, Sicilian Jews were great lovers of fennel. When they were expelled from Sicily after the Spanish Inquisition, they introduced fennel to the Italian mainland, where it was dubbed a Jewish food—so much so that fennel simmered in olive oil with garlic was named finocchi alla giudia, or “fennel, Jewish style.” Another favorite Italian Jewish dish was finocchi alla parmigiana—steamed fennel topped with melted butter and grated Parmesan. In Tuscany, raw fennel was often served at the end of a meal to freshen the breath and aid digestion. Fennel was also said to make bad wine taste good; according to Giacomo Castelvetro, the 17th-century gastronome, Venetian innkeepers would offer fennel and nuts free to their customers before serving them inferior wine. It’s worth pointing out that finocchio—which means fennel in Italian—is also a derogatory name for “homosexual.” Legend has it that when homosexuals were burned at the stake during the Inquisition, fennel was often employed to disguise the smell of burning flesh.
Fennel—called besbes in Arabic—is also enjoyed by North African Jews, especially in salads and tajines. Ground fennel seeds are often used to flavor Tunisian Jewish meatballs, which are often served in tomato sauce with rice or pasta.
Although not native to India, fennel seeds are widely used today to flavor Indian curries, rice dishes, breads, and desserts. They are also prescribed in ayurvedic medicine for digestive upsets—especially cramps, nausea, and flatulence—and to boost the metabolism and tone the nervous system.
There are two main varieties of fennel: common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), which is an upright herb with feathery fronds and yellow flowers, and Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum), which was first cultivated in Italy in the 17th century. Florence fennel is bulbous and can be male or female. The female bulb is rounder and slightly sweeter than the male bulb, and is generally used raw in salads, while the male bulb is elongated and used more in cooking. The feathery fronds of common fennel are mainly utilized to flavor soups, sauces, and fish dishes. In Italy, wild fennel often appears in breads, salami, sausages, and marinades—especially for olives. A traditional Sardinian soupy casserole called zuppa di finocchietti selvatici is made with layers of boiled wild fennel, fresh pecorino cheese, and day-old bread, which is moistened with vegetable stock and baked in the oven until the top is golden brown. Florence fennel is also one of the main herbs used to flavor absinthe—a highly alcoholic spirit that was very popular in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially with many well-known artists and writers of the time, like Vincent van Gogh, James Joyce, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Oscar Wilde.
Today, fennel is known to have many health benefits. It is rich in calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and antioxidants that are important for tissue repair and the health of your skin, and may reduce the risk of cancer. Fennel is also rich in anethole, which gives it its distinctive flavor and aroma and is said to block inflammation in the body. It is also a good source of fiber, potassium, and folate, which may benefit the health of your heart. Fennel seeds are thought to help with weight management, as they are diuretic and may help boost your metabolism. One teaspoon of raw or lightly toasted fennel seeds taken after meals is said to greatly aid digestion. And fennel seeds are still used to sweeten the breath.
Paola Gavin is a food writer and author of four vegetarian cookbooks including Hazana: Jewish Vegetarian Cooking. Follow her on Instagram @paolagavin and on Twitter @paolagavinfood.