With a multitude of aromatic and healing properties, this very special herb cannot be ignored in our masala dabba

With a multitude of aromatic and healing properties, this very special herb cannot be ignored in our masala dabba

Saunf or dried fennel seeds, is an aromatic, anise-flavored spice. It is brown or green in color when fresh, and turns into dull grey as the fruit ages.  It is a very essential ingredient of garam masala/goda masala, which is used all over the country.  It is called badi shep in Marathi, variyali in Gujarati, sompu  in Telugu, sompu kaaLu in Kannada, mauri in Bengali, perunjirakam in Malayalam and pereuncirakam/soumbu in Tamil.

Saunf (Foeniculum vulgare), is a hardy plant belonging to the carrot family with a hollow stem, feathery leaves and yellow flowers.  Its origin is in the Mediterranean region, though early Sanskrit texts mention its qualities and its use as a medicinal plant with a number of benefits. It is now grown all over, mostly on river banks and near sea coasts. It requires dry soils. It is grown in many regions, including northern Europe, the United States, southern parts of Canada, Asia and Australia. In fact, in Australia and the United States, it is considered to be a weed. In India, fennel is grown over large areas, mostly in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. India is one of the largest exporter of fennel seeds with Gujarat being the largest producing state. 

According to ancient Sanskrit texts, Saunf has been referred to as Madhurika. It is also referred to as Mishi or Madhura. In Ayurveda, the saunf fruit, fruit oil and root are used in various medicines. It is considered safe for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Ancient Sanskrit texts like Dhanvantari Nighantu, Kaiyyadeva Nighantu and  Bhava Prakasha describe the benefits of this herb.

तिक्ता स्वादुहिमा वृष्या दुर्नामक्षयजिन्मिशी |
क्षतक्षीणहिता बल्या वातपित्तास्रदोषजित् || [Dhanvantari Nighantu] 

It is used to treat chronic respiratory conditions (दुर्नामक्षयजित्) such as tuberculosis , to treat injuries (क्षतक्षीणहिता), improve strength (बल्या) and immunity. It is used to treat bleeding disorders that are caused due to an imbalance in Pitta dosha (पित्तास्रदोषजित्). 

मिश्रेया तद्गुणा प्रोक्ता विशेषाद्योनिशूलनुत् |
अग्निमान्द्यहरी हृद्या बद्धविट्कृमिशूलहृत् |
रूक्षोष्णा पाचनी कासवमिश्लेष्मानिलान्हरेत् || [Bhavaprakash Nighantu] 

Fennel strengthens cardiac functions (हृद्या), and alleviates pain in the female reproductive system (योनिशूलनुत् ), aids in constipation (बद्धविट्), cures worm infestations (कृमि) and cough and cold (कास)

Charaka classifies it as belonging to the “Madhuraskandha” group of herbs, i.e., sweet tasting group of herbs. Fennel is light to digest, is sweet after digestion and balances Vata and Kapha. Given at the end of a meal, it aids in digestion. In most restaurants, it is offered after meals with sugar crystals or coated with sugar.

In Ayurvedic treatment, fennel has been used since time immemorial in order to deal with Tridoshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha. It has been used for treatment of more than forty types of disorders including ailments related to the digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and respiratory systems, and as a galactagogue agent for lactating mothers. Fennel may be consumed daily, in the raw form as salads and snacks, stewed, boiled, grilled, or baked in several dishes and even used in the preparation of herbal teas (kada or kashayam  in traditional terms)or spirits.

In Ayurvedic preparations, the leaves are delicately flavored and are used in some parts of India in soups, as garnishing in salads, or in sauces that are served with puddings. The bulb is eaten raw or is sautéed, stewed, braised or grilled.

The seeds are used as a mouth freshener or as flavouring agents in toothpaste, in cuisine and for other medicinal purposes. It was believed that drinking fennel tea before a battle gave courage to the warriors. In India, it is one of the most important spices used in Gujarat, Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Kashmir etc. In most Maharashtrian households, it is offered, either raw or roasted, at the end of a meal or even after a cup of tea or coffee. It is also consumed as tea, an excellent beverage for detoxification of the system.  It is used in masalas, pickles, ladoos and gravies. In certain parts of Maharashtra, it is the main herb in kachoris.

Apart from these, fennel also contains 87 volatile compounds such as flavonoids, phenolic compounds, fatty acids, and amino acids, supposed to be beneficial in chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular and neurological diseases and even cancer.

Fennel is used in various traditional systems of medicine like in the Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha. According to the book 'Healing Foods' by DK Publishing House, syrup made from the juice of fennel seeds are traditionally used to thin mucus.  Their phytonutrients are effective in clearing sinus and chest congestion.

With the world spiraling in a pandemic, there is renewed interest in traditional knowledge, especially in addressing symptoms of cough, cold and chest congestion.

Owing to its carminative properties, fennel is used for various digestive problems including heartburn, bloating, cramps, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease, loss of appetite. Saunf water or commonly known as Gripe water is given to infants to treat any colic issues

It is used for the treatment of anxiety and a number of stress-related disorders. It is also found to be useful to  enhance memory and intelligence, and deal with cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease as a nootropic and anticholinesterase agent.

It stimulates the contraction of the smooth muscles of the trachea, that facilitates the expectoration of mucus, bacteria, and other products. As it contains vitamin C and a range of anti-inflammatory volatile oils and antioxidants, it is used to develop immunities from cold, cough and flu and also for treating chronic respiratory ailments including tuberculosis.

Saunf is a storehouse of Manganese, sodium, potassium and calcium that aid in improving and strengthening teeth and bones. Iron in saunf helps in the production of red blood cells. The presence of these elements prevents cell damage and slows down ageing process. Furthermore, it helps to maintain hormonal balance and has anti-spasmodic properties thereby easing menstrual cramps. Chewing the seeds can help to relieve hunger pangs.

With a multitude of aromatic and healing properties, this very special herb cannot be ignored in our masala dabba.


(Saunf is the first in the "Into the Masala Dabba" column)

All inputs by Smt Radha Raj. Having taught at the Government College of Engineering and at the College of Pharmacy in Karad, MH, Smt Radha now authors undergraduate and post-graduate course materials for Pune University. She has authored over sixteen books. She wrote the script for a documentary in Hindi on Warli tribe for Doordarshan. Her motto is: Always Be Learning and Never Stop Improving.