click on image to see more photos of kalonji
The Spice is Right #1: Ancient Spices – Nigella (Nigella sativa)
When Barbara (author of “Tigers and Strawberries”) announced that she was starting a Spice event and that the first version was to be “ancient spices”, I was very excited. We had just been eating the most wonderful Indian dishes that featured nigella seed. What could be more fitting for this event?
According to en.wikipedia.org – Nigella sativa, the seed is known variously as kalonji, kezah, habbah elbarakah, siyah daneh, fennel flower, black caraway, nutmeg flower, Roman coriander, onion seed, black sesame, black cumin (a name also used for a different spice from the parsley family: kala jeera Bunium persicum), nigella or black seed. Apparently, it has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy for
respiratory health, stomach and intestinal health, kidney and liver function, circulatory and immune system support, and for general overall well-being.
And ancient? I’ll say! I didn’t know for certain that it was indeed ancient, but after googling, I’m pretty much convinced that it has been used for eons.
It is mentioned in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, contrasting the reaping of ketsah (Hebrew word for nigella seed) with wheat.
When he has levelled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cummin [Hebrew word isketsah], and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border?
Isaiah 28: 25-26
And according to herbcompanion.com, nigella seed is:
[…]cultivated in India, Bangladesh, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean basin and has been used through the ages for culinary and medicinal purposes.
[…] Nigella sativa […] has been traced back more than 3,000 years to the kingdom of the Assyrians and ancient Egyptians.
We were reminded about the use of kalonji while reading about making Bengali curry in Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid. (T’s eyes glazed over and he interrupted the reading to say how fabulous Bengali fish curry is and that he would make it for me. I’ll post soon about the Bengali Fish Curries we’ve been feasting on).
And so we went in search of it at a nearby Indian grocery store, Bombay Trading. When we asked if they had kalonji, the clerk said, “wild onion seed? Yes, of course…”
However, nigella seed is not in the onion family at all. Alford and Duguid write that it comes from a plant closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). And the following is an excerpt from Herbs, Spices and Flavourings by Arabella Boxer, Jocasta Innes, Charlotte Parry-Crooke and Lewis Esson:
Nigella is […] of the buttercup family. [It] grows wild and in cultivation in central and southern Europe and Asia. […] The seeds’ earthy aroma, faint until they are rubbed or bruised, is slightly reminiscent of carrots or nutmeg and they are peppery, bitter and crunchy to taste.
But the wikipedia article has a different idea of the flavour:
Kalonji has a pungent bitter taste and a faint smell of strawberries. It is used primarily in candies and liquors.
click on image to see more photos of onion pilau
It does have a distinct, delicate, somewhat smoky flavour. I’m not sure that it is really reminiscent of carrots or strawberries, but as soon as I tasted it in a simple onion pilau, I knew I’d had it many times before.
Onion Pilau (aka Pulao…)
- 1½ c Basmati rice
- 3 c water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (sunflower, safflower, canola…)
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp kalonji (nigella seeds)
- 1 medium onion
- 3 garlic cloves (optional)
- pepper to taste
- Wash rice.
- Put water and salt into a large pot and bring to a boil
- Add rice to boiling water, cover and bring back to a boil. When it comes back to a boil, immediately turn off the heat.
- Put the pot on a spacer to get it away from the hot element. Let the rice sit, covered (no peeking!!) for about 30 minutes.
- Heat oil (In India, it would likely be ghee) in a frying pan to medium heat. Add mustard seeds and cook til they pop.
- Add kalonji and onions. Saute until the onions are almost caramelized. Add garlic and continue sauteeing til the garlic has a tinge of gold.
- When the rice is done, carefully fluff it with a fork and gently stir in the onion mixture.
Cumin seed is also a nice addition to pilau. And raisins. And green peas. And cashews…. Use your imagination!
Kalonji adds the most wonderful dimension to western as well as Indian food. I love the crunch and slightly wild earthy taste. We recently added some to Bubbly Squeak (potatoes and kale) and it was the best ever.
edit 25 April 2006 @ 10:12 EDT: Read about Bengali Fish Curry here.