A particular smell connects me to both my home countries. It is a scent that I do not care for much but will not cower away from when it is presented to me — sweetly creeping up on me, playfully tickling my nose, at times coming a step too close for my own comfort.
Keeping its promise to disguise itself among superstar ingredients, it lays low for hours, melding into the meal, highlighting it with magnetic I-don’t-know-what’s, only to rear its syrupy stench in your sweat.
Fenugreek — a plant that produces a seed so potent, it makes you smell — whether that scent is considered bad or good depends entirely on where you come from. Older Egyptians praise this magical seed, touting its health benefits and claiming that it brings back the long lost hair of balding men and that it facilitates the release of a mother’s milk to allow it to flow freely from her body, rushing to satiate the eager young mouth awaiting her.
“No basterma for me! I don’t need to stink,” Egyptian friends defensively proclaim to notify others that they prefer to remain “clean”. Younger Egyptians, who care deeply about finding or retaining a partner, and that enjoy smelling like fruit and vanillin, have seemed to turn away from fenugreek, avoiding it at any cost.
Basterma, a cured meat that utilizes fenugreek and is frequently coupled with eggs in Egypt at breakfast time, stands at the forefront and takes the brunt of it all. Today, fenugreek is not found as often in Egyptian homes as it was once and it now has two very specific purposes: curing meat or medicine.
Consider fenugreek in the western world. A comparison that I found strange at first began to grow on me. Hear me out.
They say fenugreek makes people smell like maple syrup and not of “basterma sweat”.
On an October night in 2005, residents of New York began complaining about a permeating scent of maple syrup that had taken over their neighborhood. This smell continued to baffle people until they were relieved of their concern on January 29, 2009.
After analyzing the odor sample, New York officials reported that the maple syrup- like smell came from a flavor and fragrance company in the area. This company had been processing fenugreek to create the maple syrup flavor used in artificial maple syrup littering the supermarket shelves of the world.
Yes, it is true. That artificial maple syrup that is available in some modern Egyptian homes contains fenugreek. We’ve given the boot to the old authentic fenugreek to make room for the new form, bottled in sugar and not very high on the nutrition scale.
Maple syrup/basterma sweat aside, there’s no end to the new discoveries surrounding fenugreek. From increasing male libido, improving digestion, aiding milk production in lactating women and enlarging breasts in non-lactating women, fenugreek has proven to be beneficial and contains protein, vitamin C, niacin, potassium and diosgenin — a compound with properties similar to estrogen.
This recipe is not for the faint-hearted, bringing to the table the full flavors of basterma intertwined with the sweetness of red onions. Enveloped in a buttery cheese sauce, it should encourage you to profit from the exceptional benefits fenugreek presents to our world. Understanding that it is far removed from the goodness of boiling it and drinking its tea, kindly forgive me for the additional fat I’ve sent your way. It’s cold outside, fat keeps you warm and this winter, I’m posing as a fattened bear.
Basterma Pasta Bake
4 cups of pasta
100 grams of butter
110 grams of basterma
2 long red Italian onions, sliced
¼ cup of all-purpose flour
2 cups of full cream milk
½ a teaspoon of whole-grain mustard
½ cup of heavy cream
2 egg yolks, beaten
½ cup of Mozzarella cheese
½ cup of Cheddar cheese
½ cup of Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius. In a large pot, cook the pasta until it’s tender but undercooked. Drain and set aside. In a medium-sized pan, pan-fry the basterma in a drizzle of oil until it changes color and becomes slightly crispy around the edges. Keep the basterma fat that has melted in the pan on the side to use for later. In the same pan, melt 50 grams of butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for approximately 10 minutes. They should have started to slightly color but should remain soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a medium-sized pot, melt 50 grams of butter. Add the basterma grease you previously reserved and add the flour. Whisk constantly as it cooks for around 1 minute. Add the milk and cream and cook for 3-5 minutes or until it begins to thicken.
Add salt and pepper and turn your heat down.
In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks with 4 tablespoons of your bechamel-like sauce. Stir quickly then pour the egg mixture back into the sauce. Let it combine for a minute. Add the cheese and stir. Once the cheese has melted, add most of the basterma and onions and mix. Keep some on the side. Add the pasta and coat it all with the sauce. Tip your pot over a baking dish and pour your pasta mixture. Sprinkle with the rest of your onion and basterma mix and bake for around 20-25 minutes. Serve steaming hot.