Nigella is another ingredient that does not get the respect it deserves. I am convinced this lack of use in the United States, at least, is due to the fact that it has numerous aliases, making it challenging to find, much less get, the spice you intend – unless you know what to seek.
Some English names that are mistakenly applied to nigella:
- Black caraway is another name as it is used with caraway, in Jewish rye breads)
- Black onion seed (because of the similarity to onion seeds); but there is no relation between nigella and this plant
- Black sesame seeds
- Black cumin (as in Bengali kalo jira), but this is applied to a different spice
- More rarely, there is confusion with ajwain (a future post will be dedicated to this wonderful spice), which in some languages has similar names
In English, Nigella sativa seed is variously called fennel flower, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander. The scientific name is a derivative of Latin nigellus or niger “black”.
In English-speaking countries with large immigrant populations, it can also be known as:
- askalonji (Hindi कलौंजी kalauṃjī or कलोंजी kaloṃjī)
- kezah Hebrew קצח)
- chernushka (Russian) – probably coming from the Armenian emigrant population
- çörek otu (Turkish)
- habbat albarakah (Arabic حبه البركة ḥabbatu l-barakah “seed of blessing”)
- siyah daneh (Persianسیاهدانه siyâh dâne)
- كلونجى in urdu
Nigella sativa has a pungent, bitter taste. They are vaguely triangular shaped (hence the misnomer “black cumin”) and, when rubbed, smells like oregano. It has a slight oniony taste, which led to that confusion association as black onion seeds.
Today, the plant is cultivated from Egypt to India. From Iran, nigella use spread to Northern India, particularly the Punjab and Bengal regions, where the spice is mostly used for vegetable dishes. Like many other Indian spices, nigella develops its flavour best after short toasting in a hot dry pan, or with a bit of oil. In the Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa and Sikkim, and Bangladesh, a spice mixture made from five spices is very popular: Panch phoran, better known by its Hindi name of panch phoron. This mixture is used both for meats and vegetables. The composition commonly provided is equal parts nigella, fenugreek, cumin, black mustard seeds and fennel. Panch phoron subtly flavors foods, and is always fried in oil before use.
Nigella sativa is thought to be mentioned in the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah, where the reaping of nigella and wheat is contrasted (Isaiah 28: 25, 27). Nigella was believed to be a traditional condiment of old, and its seeds were extensively used to flavor food.” It is assumed that it has been in use for over 2,000 years. Archeological evidence about the earliest cultivation of nigella “is still scanty”, but the seeds were found in several sites from ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamun’s tomb. Although its exact role in Egyptian culture is unknown, it is known that items entombed with a pharaoh were carefully selected to assist him in the after life.
The Arabs have a proverb: “In the black seed is the medicine for every disease save death.” Herb guru Jim Duke, author of the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, notes that nigella seeds have strong anti-microbial properties. In the Middle East, the spice is incorporated in treatments for a staggering array of ailments, from eczema to asthma and cardiovascular disease. Oh, yes, and nigella repels moths.
Naturally, the other Nigella—Lawson, that is has recipes using nigella seeds, including Nigellan Flatbread (How To Be a Domestic Goddess).
Its flavor and texture lends itself to a variety of savory baked goods. A type of naan bread called Peshawari naan is generally topped with nigella. Other uses include:
combine with fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek seeds to flavor sour (tomato, yogurt) sauces
I could not add any recipes that beat what is found in these two wonderful Turkish food blogs that included nigella in some recent recipes. Its hard to improve upon perfection:
SpiritedMiuFlavor’s Ozge had a favorite recipes that incorporates nigella: Pogaca.
Zerrin of GiveRecipe provided a savory pastry recipe.