Nigella sativa, also known as fennel flower, nutmeg flower, blackseed or black caraway, among other names, is an annual flowering plant that is native to southwest and south Asia. Seeds of the plant are used as a spice and other parts are used for medicinal purposes. It is interesting to note that other than the seeds, all parts of the nigella sativa plant is used more as a medicine than as a condiment. Seeds of the plant have very little aroma when compared to other similar condiments like dill, anise and fennel. However, they do impart a very unique flavor to food that remains almost unmatched by any other ingredient.
Appearance and Common Names
The nigella sativa plant grows to about 7 to 9 inches tall and it has finely divided, linear leaves. Flowers of the plant are very delicate and usually pale blue or white. The plant bears large fruits and each fruit contains a number of seeds that are extracted, dried and used as a spice.
In the English speaking world, nigella sativa is called by various names. Most frequently, seeds of the plant are referred to as black cumin. In the world over, the spice is known by many names. In Assamese, the seeds are called kaljeera and in Bengali these are known as kalo jeeray. In Kannada, the spice is called Krishna Jeeringe. Since, nigella sativa seeds are one of the most commonly used spices all over the world, there are various regional names for it, some more widely known than the others.
Seeds of the nigella sativa plant are one of the most common spices in the world. These are used in almost all world cuisines and add flavor and aroma to food. In Arab cooking, the plant is highly prized and the seeds are one of the most important ingredients in various traditional dishes.
In Bengali cuisine, the seeds are an important ingredient in the traditional spice mixture known as paanch phoran or panch phoron, a name that literally means 'mixture of five spices'. The seeds are also used alone in various popular Bengali preparations.
The traditional Russian rye bread is considered incomplete unless blackseed is added. Similarly, Indian dals, Mediterranean fried potatoes and countless other savory dishes have black caraway seeds as an important ingredient.
In Turkey, the seed is known as corek otu, which literally means 'bun's herb'. The ingredient is used to flavor the traditional corek buns and braided-dough buns that are important foods in Turkish cuisine. In Bosnian cuisine, the seed is used on a very large-scale to flavor pastries and other desserts commonly baked during the Muslim religious occasions.
In recent years, parts of nigella sativa and nigella sativa oil have emerged as extracts that can help prevent and even treat pancreatic cancer. Ongoing research suggests that regular use of the oil and other parts of the plant can not only keep those who are at risk safer but even go as far as reversing the damage done by cancer.