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.