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
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)
It may also show up in berbere, a spice mixture favored in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
A Case of Confusion
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.
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.