Special Ingredients: Ajwain

The Light Through the Trees

I’ve confessed that I have a habit of buying spices first and asking questions later.  Sometimes the purchases were duds, although I believe the argument could be made for “user error,” one or two chance encounters caused strong feelings of repulsion, but every so often they led to those wonderful “Eureka” moments.  Such was the case with ajwain.  Chances are that while this spice may not sound familiar; you have tried it, and I’m guessing probably liked it, that is if you like eating Indian and Pakistani food.

Flavor and Scent

The raw seeds smell like thyme because they contain the same ingredient thymol.  However the ajwain are more aromatic and a bit less subtle in announcing its presence in food.  It also has a pungent slightly bitter taste.  If using this spice in its raw form, be judicious in the quantities or it will not only announce its presence it will prevent any other contributor from announcing theirs.

Ajwain is part of the vast family of Umbelliferae, which claims 2,700 members including dill, caraway and cumin.

How It is Used

photo from Spice Pages

I follow the Indian method of cooking with this spice, which is to not use it raw.  I like to dry roast it or add it to the oil before sauteing my foods.  Indian cooks rarely use raw ajwain, preferring to either dry roast or fry it first in ghee.  This method develops a more subtle with complex aroma; similar to thyme, but some tasters claim caraway only “brighter”.  Before cooking, Ajwain is usually ground in mortar and pestle.  When used whole, lightly bruise the fruit first, to release oils and increase flavor.  Don’t worry if you feel there might be some time between uses, the fruit can be stored indefinitely if kept in a dark airtight containers.

With Indian cooking, it is used for making a version of bread called paratha, specifically ‘ajwain ka paratha’.  Ajwain has a particular affinity to starchy foods like savory pastries and breads, especially parathas. Snacks like Bombay mix get a boost from ajwain.  It occasionally makes an appearance in curry powder and berbere.

Beer drinkers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia consume ajwain-mixed beer which its maker claims to aid digestion.

It is a popular spice found in the vegetarian fare of the Indian state of Gujarat, where a good portion of the Indian ajwain is grown, after the state of Rajasthan which is responsible for about 90% of production.  It is often paired with green beans and root vegetables.  For me, it is a wonderful compliment to potatoes.  Lentil dishes and recipes using besan (chick pea flour) also naturally attracted to this spice.

A Few Ideas

Hariyo Saag from Oregon Live

Bombay Beans courtesy of The Daily Spud

Spiced Lentil Stuffed Flatbread (Ajwain Del Paratha) by eCurry

Vegan Ajwain Samosas by weirdcombinations

I love adding ajwain to my olive oil before I fry potatoes, with onions and garlic.  It may not be traditional, but it is tasty.

How It Got Here

Ajwain originated in the Middle East, with finger pointing to Egypt as ground zero.  Now it is primarily grown and used in:

  • India (far and away the biggest user)
  • Iran
  • Egypt
  • Afghanistan

It may also show up in berbere, a spice mixture favored in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

A Case of Confusion

photo from Spice Pages

Ajwain is one of those spices that is constantly getting confused with other spices and herbs such as celery, lovage, and nigella (although someone would have to be VERY confused to make that mistake).  Ajwain fruit are used as a spice.  Yes, they look like seeds but are actually fruit.  They closely resemble cumin or caraway seeds in appearance.  Gernot Katzer does a brilliant job in his Spice Pages of explaining the confusion and identifying the many names for this spice, in 51 languages no less.

In addition to naming, its appearance also causes some mixups.  The small seed-like fruit resembles bishop’s weed seeds, and it is frequently called bishops weed – as a result.  The plant itself, bears more than a passing resemblance to parsley.   The fruit are frequently confused with a variety of other options.  The photo to the left show ajwain in the upper left, radhuni in the right hand side and celery seed takes up the lower half.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

I want to share some of what I’ve learned about the Pavlosk Station in Russia and some of the links that speak of the situation as you may not be aware of it.

The Pavlosk Station is the worlds oldest “seed” bank, and it is facing destruction to make way for a housing development.  More details here.

This story interests concerns me because this is not a seed bank in the usual sense of the word. These plants are in situ, one of the world’s largest field collections of fruits and berries, including almost 1,000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, 300 varieties of cherries and almost 900 kinds of black currants. The Pavlovsk collection conserves varieties and wild relatives that are extinct elsewhere. Almost all of these – more than 90% – are not available in other collections. If they are destroyed at Pavlovsk, those fruits and berries are gone forever.  Fruits and berries do not breed true from seed, they require individual plants to be preserved, that is why this collection is so vital.

What’s being done:

Biodiversity International and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) have urged the Russian governement to protect this site from property developers.

There’s an online petition to the Russian President.

Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign – via The Guardian Article on topic on Change.org

AOL News article on issue

The potential destruction of this site would strike a huge blow to biodiversity, grossly shrinking the variety of plants that we have available.  Its not just about reducing the number of tasty options available to us, its a huge food security issue too.  I’ve signed the petition and it may be something you feel strongly about and would like to do to.

Update me when site is updated

24 comments for “Special Ingredients: Ajwain

  1. September 5, 2010 at 9:06 PM

    Great call to action. I just read about this and will sign the petition. I follow a couple of seed savers here locally and am fascinated with their work and mesmerized by their devotion. Thanks. I can honestly say that I was not familiar with ajwain.

  2. September 6, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    Thank you for sharing about the Pavlovsk collection. It is amazing that almost all of their seeds can’t be found anywhere else. As for ajwain, I am going to have to try that one out for myself.

  3. September 6, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    How can I say I like Indian food when I don’t even know this spice? Oops!

  4. September 6, 2010 at 9:07 PM

    What a travesty to destroy a treasure such as that seed bank. I hope the powers that be realize the importance of what they have in their hands before it’s too late.

  5. September 6, 2010 at 10:17 PM

    Thanks for introducing me this (new for me)spice. I gotta look out for it when I next visit the Indian stores.

    Good Day!
    Angie

  6. September 6, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    wow, something new for me, never heard of this spice called ajwain. I am like you, I’ll buy spices even if I don’t know what to do with them, especially if its something I have never seen before.
    The curators of the seedbank died of starvation instead of eating the seeds and tubers of the bank, Vavilov, its head was thrown into prison. It is vital that the seed bank is preserved for future generations, so sad that it has to come to this

  7. September 7, 2010 at 4:43 AM

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! I am so happy to have found yours. Excellent information well presented. I did not know about the seed bank’s dilemma. As an advocate for heirloom plants
    I believe in their importance to continue diversity in species. With the havoc that Monsanto is wreaking on agriculture, we need all the ammunition we can muster to protect against the possible breakdown of our agriculture system and superweeds and bugs. The strength of the old plants may be the only thing that sees us through. I will make sure to mention this on my own blog.

  8. admin
    September 7, 2010 at 5:06 AM

    Tammy – I agree more power to the seed savers, their mission is indeed critical as our options shrink with amazing swiftness, and not from such deliberate events.

    Christine – My pleasure, I just found the story so amazing, I wanted to pass it along.

    Tigerfish – Many people have not found it yet, but it is out there and fairly easy to come by – I got my last batch at Penzey’s.

    Carolyn – I so agree and hope for a positive outcome.

    Angie – My pleasure.

    Sarah – Ajwain is delicious and I hope you can find it easily, although sometimes half the fun is in the search, The story is just amazing and the dedication of the scientists is unbelievable.

    Deana – I was so happy to discover your site through Lazaro, what a wonderful discovery, you can expect to find me exploring your posts. Thanks for helping to spread the message.

  9. September 7, 2010 at 5:46 AM

    Interesting – love Indian food and never even heard of ajwain. How did that happen? The seed bank story intersts me on many levels – I believe I heard about it on MPR – but it could have been another one (seed bank). Amazingly wonderful what people have preserved. Amazingly sad what people will destroy.

  10. September 7, 2010 at 6:26 AM

    I also buy things and ask questions later!

    That spice has such a wonderful flavor. I love it! A great post.

    Thankfully some people are here to preserve our patrimony…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  11. September 7, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    I bought ajwain seeds a couple of years ago for an Indian vegetarian Thanksgiving meal (long story). Great stuff! And thank you for mentioning the seed bank. I had no idea – will spread the word.

  12. September 7, 2010 at 8:13 AM

    A timely important and relavent post. Thanks for introducing me to a new spice. Can’t wait to play with it in the kitchen.

  13. September 7, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    LOL. I sort of do the same thing, too. Buy now, ask later.

    A new spice I need to keep an eye out for. I’m trying to get myself into more ethnic foods, so it’s good to know these things. At least I’ll know what they are now in case I one day come face to face with them.

  14. September 7, 2010 at 4:16 PM

    There is a jar of ajwain sitting amidst my other spices but I can’t remember why I bought it. No matter- I will try your recommendation as a seasoning for potatoes. And maybe brushing it on some flatbread? :)

  15. September 7, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    Thank you for raising awareness about the Pavlovsk collection! And I’m very intrigued by ajwain – i’ve never heard about it before!

  16. September 7, 2010 at 7:56 PM

    This is so foreign to me. I’ve never heard of the spice and I’m not even sure if I’ve ever tasted before. I need to start eating more real Indian/Pakistani food.

  17. September 7, 2010 at 8:28 PM

    Oh! Never heard of this spice…thanks so much for the info…will have to look for it next time at the Indian restaurant :-) Would love to try it…

  18. September 7, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    This ingredient sounded odd for my knowledge and this is confirmed, is very especial, scarce in our cuisines on these latitudes. I’d like to try it someday 😉

    Cheers,

    Gera

  19. September 8, 2010 at 2:52 AM

    Spices are one thing I rarely buy…I tend to just stick to the few I know. I admire your adventurous culinary spirit!

  20. September 10, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    Thanks for posting about Pavlovsk collection, I recently read a article concerning this and was truly saddened, great new spice I must find, I love that you add it to oil…yum

    sweetlife

  21. September 11, 2010 at 11:17 PM

    thanks oyster I have learnt something !!Pierre

  22. September 14, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    I’ve never cooked with ajwain, and I’m not sure if I’ve tasted it. Sounds lovely in breads and the potato dish you described.

    I just signed the petition! Now, I’ll be following the story as well.

  23. September 17, 2010 at 4:44 AM

    I love your philosophy, buy now, learn later. I tend to do the same thing. This is a new one to me which isn’t surprising because you are my number one source for new flavors and foods! Sounds wonderful. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it.

  24. September 22, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    This is new to me, but I would love to try it!

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