Fennel fruits, often referred to as «fennel seeds» rather inaccurately, are an ancient spice of the Mediterranean, known by the Greeks since three millennia. In the course of time, fennel usage spread both to the East and to the North, which is why fennel is now part of Northern European cookery as well as of East Asian cooking. Quite often, salty foods receive only a small dash of fennel — so small, indeed, that fennel’s importance is easily overlooked.
Being a main component of the Chinese five spice powder (wu xiang fen, see star anise), fennel is firmly rooted in Chinese cuisine, although it is hardly ever used alone, but always as component in spice mixtures. Besides five spice powder, it is often found in spice mixtures employed for long-cooked stews (see black cardamom) or master sauce (see cassia).
Fennel is quite important in several regional cuisines of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in Bengal, where it is part of the typical five-spice-mix panch phoron (see nigella). Fennel usage is, however, not restricted to Bengal: In Kashmir, I once had an excellent duck flavoured with toasted fennel; in Sri Lanka, toasted fennel fruits are one of the typical ingredients responsible for the subtle and complex aroma of fiery and chileladen curries. The toasting procedure not only increases the flavour, but also changes the character of fennel to a more spicy and less sweet impression.
Mediterranean. The plant’s popularity spread northward during the Middle Ages, when it was grown in monasteries (see lovage).
Sweet and aromatic, similar to anise. For other sweet spices, see licorice.
Fennel pollen, also known as «spice of the angels», has a subtle fennel flavour, lacking some of the sweetness but with a distinct note of pine needles (though others might disagree with this association of mine).