Fennel, seeds or bulb, is a strangely unpopular spice and vegetable. Maybe it’s the licorice association. Even I, for years, associated fennel seeds with the sweet digestif Indian restaurants serve as a palate cleanser at the end of meals. Seldom, and only in one or two particular dishes, had I seen fennel bulbs or seeds used. One day, I was blown away by sautéed okra cooked with fennel seeds served to me by a Bengali friend. From then on, almost every time I cook okra, I throw in some fennel seeds. Slowly I began to widen my fennel horizon and discovered how delicious the bulb can be in salads or just braised. It is a sweet, fragrant vegetable packed with fiber and antioxidants. Fennel is in season now, so head out to the local farmers’ markets and get one of these aromatic, succulent bulbs to cook with. Fennel fronds (the skinny stems with tiny leaves on top of the bulbs) can often be toothsome and chewy if eaten raw. In this soup, we cook them down to a soft, deeply flavorful finish and garnish the bowl with finely chopped fronds.
1 medium fennel bulb
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp salt
1 (14 ounce) can coconut milk
1 tsp fenugreek leaves
1 Tbsp grated unpeeled fresh ginger
Pinch of chili powder, for garnish
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
2-3 stems fennel fronds, for garnish
Trim and discard the bottom of the fennel bulb, remove fronds and set aside. Chop the rest of the bulb into 1-inch pieces. Slice the stems into thin wheels along with most of the fronds.
In a medium-size saucepan, heat the olive oil until shimmering and add the cumin seeds. Within a few seconds, they will pop and sizzle; toss in chopped fennel immediately. Cook for 5-7 minutes on medium heat to give some of the fennel a light brown color. Add salt, coconut milk and 1 ½ cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover with a tight-fitting lid, cooking the soup for another 20 minutes. The fennel should now be soft. Add the fenugreek leaves and grated ginger. Cook for 5 minutes, then let it rest for another 10-15 minutes.
Serve the soup, evenly distributing the cooked fennel, garnishing the bowls with a pinch of chili powder, a drizzle of olive oil and fennel fronds.
Notes and variations
To create a richer version, replace the olive oil with ghee and the coconut milk with cream.
Add shrimp to the soup at the end for another layer of flavor. Depending on size, shrimp will cook in about 2-3 minutes.
If you hate the taste of licorice, use the fronds minimally.
To change flavors up, replace the cumin with mustard or coriander seeds.