Special Ingredients: Nigella


Nigella seeds from Penzey's, called by their Russian name

Nigella seeds from Penzey's, called by their Russian name

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.

Nigella Lawson (photo from telegraph.co.ul

Nigella Lawson (photo from telegraph.co.uk)

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: 

added to vegetables, curries, pickles, chutneys, spice mixtures, 

incorporate into sauces, broth and soups, 

roast and sprinkle on cucumber and red onions, 

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.

Update me when site is updated

23 comments for “Special Ingredients: Nigella

  1. April 28, 2009 at 11:36 AM

    Thank you for this informative post! I don’t think I’ve ever seen nigella here actually.

  2. April 28, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Something else new for us…that’s what you always provide. We didn’t even know that nigella was not a woman on TV!

  3. springtimeinthecountry
    April 28, 2009 at 2:25 PM

    I finally got around to signing up for a wordpress account so I can comment directly on your blog! About time!

    This is a great post. Nigella (the spice) is not something I’ve really come across. I’ve heard of it, but never used it in cooking. Another new ingredient to add to the ‘to try’-list.

  4. April 28, 2009 at 5:10 PM

    I was in Kalustyan’s in NYC a few months ago and went to town buying up Indian spices. And of course they disappeared into the cupboard never to be seen again (much like the achiote paste). I just found the bottle of kalongji nigella seeds and I’m psyched to use them now, especially with the great recipe links you’ve provided. I actually did see Ozge’s recipe when it was first posted, but I didn’t make the connection between ‘black cumin’ and nigella. And of course I LOVE Nigella Lawson. Great post!

  5. foodgal
    April 28, 2009 at 5:59 PM

    Thanks for the great primer on nigella. And you’re right, I always think of the OTHER nigella when I hear the name. Too funny.

  6. April 29, 2009 at 12:35 AM

    I’ve only heard of Nigella Lawson. hehehe… I would love to try it though. If it were for this I would have never known it was a real ingredient.

  7. April 29, 2009 at 10:28 AM

    Just 2 days ago mom was telling me how useful it is to consume one teaspoonful of seeds, then I remember you were going to make a special ingredients post and here I am. LouAnn, also thank you for citing me in this interesting post – looking forward to getting to know new special ingredients!

  8. April 29, 2009 at 3:16 PM

    I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find nigella locally. But, I’ve never found black onion seeds either. I always give up and use black sesame seeds. Some day, I’ll find it!

  9. oysterculture
    April 29, 2009 at 9:44 PM

    Lisa: try mail ordering from Penzy’s
    Ozge: I was amazed at their reputed medicinal properties
    B+B and Foodgal: ah, the power of a strong marketing arm

  10. oysterculture
    April 29, 2009 at 9:47 PM

    Springtime: Thanks so much for going to the trouble of getting a wordpress account – I really appreciate it! I cannot wait to see what sort of recipes you develop once you try it.
    DuoDishes: Its amazing the things you learn.
    5Star: I’m sure someday soon we’ll see them featured in your blog in some spectacular fashion

  11. April 30, 2009 at 12:22 PM

    I definitely have had nigella before, but I think as black caraway. I love the flavor and the other Nigella. She is one of the celebrity chefs that doesn’t bug.

  12. sapuche
    April 30, 2009 at 1:41 PM

    I must admit that I didn’t know what Nigella was until you mentioned it here. Nutella, yes…Nigella, no. It’s also strange that it goes by names as far-ranging and confusing as caraway, fennel, nutmeg, and coriander! By the sound of it, nigella has been around for a long time and helping to flavor the foods of many cultures. I’ll have a look for it the next time I’m at Whole Foods or an ethnic market, but I’m not sure I’ll find it! As always, you posted about an interesting food topic, and one that I was previously in the dark about. Have you used this in your own cooking?

  13. shesimmers
    May 1, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    I agree about how the confusion over the name is frustrating. I remember walking up and down the aisles of my favorite middle eastern market looking for Nigella seeds and all I could find was these black onion seeds. LOL

    The Hebrew קצח happens to occur only in Is. 28: 25, 27 and nowhere else in the entire biblical corpus, so that makes it difficult to identify the seed in question. The Hebrew lexicon translates it Nigella sativa (which I assume is where the person entering this Wiki entry got the information from) though admits the meaning is uncertain. The arabic equivalent listed for this particular classical Hebrew entry is, not surprisingly, قزح (a cognate of קצח). This makes me think قزح could be either the archaic form of حبه البركة cited on Wiki and here or perhaps a different seed altogether. As if this isn’t confusing enough, the Hebrew קצח in these two verses of Isaiah is rendered “dill” in most English translations.

    I’m sticking with Nigella. 🙂 Just have to remember that it’s the same as black onion seeds. Since most south asian stores cater to Hindi and Urdu speaking populations, committing the Hindi and Urdu names (which are almost identical – Wiki didn’t transliterate the urdu name, but it’s almost the same as the Hindi) is helpful as that’s most likely the name on the package.

  14. oysterculture
    May 1, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Leela, I’m definitely coming to you first next time for anything related to Hebrew (wow) – I love this sort of detailed response, I need help with those ancient languages. You’re right, Wiki was the only source I found that specifically identified the verse that the word was found in. All my other references to the bible only hinted – not as confident as the Wiki author that Nigella was identified there, which was why I phrased it as “thought to be menioned in the bible” I found http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Nige_sat.html to be another good resource for this topic. Wiki is always a good starting point, but I try to never hang my hat on a single source.

    I know your bio says you studied ancient languages, what other ones are you fluent in?

  15. shesimmers
    May 1, 2009 at 3:49 PM

    LouAnn – I’ve pretty much covered anything in the Semitic family but only up to 500 AD or so. This means I can decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls, but can’t order falafel in modern Hebrew in modern day Israel. 🙂

  16. oysterculture
    May 1, 2009 at 4:00 PM

    Hi Sapuche, not sure how much luck you’ll have at Whole Foods, my advise is to try the ethnic markets – please let me know what you think when you’ve experimented with them.

    I have tried them and like to add them to some of my curries, may not be the most traditional approach, but they are tasty – I’m not much of a baker, need to work on that, but I see them on so many yummy breads that I want to give it a try.

  17. giverecipe2009
    May 2, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    We love its aromatic taste and use it very often on pastries in Turkey. Thank you for introducing it here, I didn’t know these details about it. But I’m very sure about its taste. I strongly recommend everyone to try it.

  18. sophie33
    May 3, 2009 at 10:59 AM

    I just love Nigella seeds. I use them a lot in Indian cooking. Thanks for this wonderful information!
    I just discovered your blog & I love it!
    Thanks again for your lovely comment on my foodblog!!!

  19. cookappeal
    May 4, 2009 at 2:52 AM

    Thought I left a comment, but we have many Indian markets here and you can purchase them, as they are good in stews, soups, and meat dishes…

    I know I keep saying this but love the information on here! I discover things…

  20. dailyspud
    May 7, 2009 at 1:26 PM

    I have been meaning to try this for ages. I even have an unopened packet in my cupboard which is (confusingly) labeled both kalonji and black onion seed and which I am hoping is Nigella!

  21. June 1, 2009 at 4:13 AM

    ha! I had some of this stuff (“black cumin” they called it in Morocco) shoved up my nose by a spice shop “herboriste” in the markets of Marrakesh as a tried and true way to cure headaches and allergies…neither of which I was experiencing at the time! So much for my first encounter with Nigella. 🙂

    Thanks for the background info, at least now I know what the heck it really is!

  22. oysterculture
    June 1, 2009 at 6:42 PM

    Brenda – ha, that sounds like a market adventure if ever there was one! Did it cure you of your headaches and allergies? None since, I trust =)

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