Nigella – ‘The Spice That is’!

February 02, 2022 posted in Behind the Scenes

Cooks are discovering a culinary seed spice that believe it or not has been ubiquitous for many years. Those little black seeds we see on Turkish bread, are more often than not nigella seeds!

The nigella of culinary use is an erect annual, a member of the buttercup family and close relative to the decorative plant that is known as ‘love-in-a-mist’ (N. damascena). Nigella of culinary use (N. sativa) is less attractive. It grows 30–60 cm high and has wispy, thread-like grey–green leaves and small five-petalled blue or white flowers, about 25 mm across, which develop spiky-looking capsules that resemble the seed head of a poppy. Each capsule is divided into five seed-bearing compartments that are crowned by vertical, prominent spikes. When ripe they shatter to disperse the tiny, matte-finish jet-black seeds. The seed capsules of nigella are harvested as they ripen but before they have had a chance to explode and lose their cargo. After further drying the pods are threshed to remove the seeds. Each angular tear-shaped seed is about 3 mm long, has a cream-coloured centre and is occasionally confused with and passed-off as black sesame. Nigella seeds give off little aroma, however, the flavour is pleasantly sharp, and not unlike carrot. It is nutty and has a distinctly metallic, lingering, peppery throat-drying quality.

Origin and History

Nigella is native to Western Asia and Southern Europe, although it now grows profusely in Egypt, the Middle East and India. Although there is little recorded history about nigella, its medicinal properties were known to ancient Asian herbalists. The Romans used it in cooking and it is known that the early settlers took it to America, where the seeds were utilised like pepper as a seasoning. A great deal of confusion surrounds nigella as in India it is occasionally referred to as black cumin, which it is not, and it has quite a different taste to true black cumin seed. Nigella is also often called ‘black onion seed’ or ‘wild onion seed’, another misnomer, made more confusing by the fact that true onion seeds have little flavour and are usually only for sprouting purposes. On reflection, I believe the majority of recipes that call for onion seeds actually intend the cook to use nigella. I have read that in French cookery, nigella has been called quatre épices, which I find totally bizarre as quatre épices is a blend of four spices (white pepper, nutmeg, ginger and cloves), traditionally used with preserved meats in charcuterie. Nigella seed oil is used for theraputic purposes and goes by the unenlightening name of blackseed oil.

Buying and Storage

Nigella seeds are best bought whole and should be coal-black in colour. As they are cheaper than black sesame seeds, you are unlikely to be sold black sesame by mistake, more often than not the substitution is the other way around. Poor-quality uncleaned seeds are recognised by the presence of pale, flaky bits of husk from the pods. Nigella seeds are quite stable in their whole form and will keep their flavour for up to three years when stored in airtight packaging in a dry place.

Nigella Seed Whole (Kalonji)

Nigella seeds are often seen on Turkish bread and in Indian naan breads because their flavour especially complements carbohydrates. Nigella is an essential ingredient in the Indian five-seed spice blend panch phora, along with cumin, fennel, fenugreek and mustard seeds. Panch phora also happens to go well with potatoes, another carbohydrate, when it is fried in oil and then chunks of partially cooked potato are fried until brown and coated with all the spice seeds. Lightly roasting or frying the seeds in a little oil before adding to recipes, tends to bring out the nutty flavour and reduces some of its metallic sharpness. One of my favourite ways to enjoy nigella seeds is in Kate’s Muhamarra Dip with Quick Za’atar Flatbread

Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition

For detailed spice information and recipes, you can purchase The Spice & Herb Bible third edition in soft cover,  by Ian (Herbie) Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill.

In 2007 The Spice & Herb Bible second edition was joint winner of the award for Best Reference Book at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Cookbook Awards in Chicago.  In 2015 this third edition was a finalist in the ‘Reference and Scholarship’ Category of the James Beard Awards, which many consider to be the Oscars of the food world.

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