Black Cumin (Nigella sativa)
Like the better known garden variety "love-in-a-mist" (Nigella
damascena), Nigella sativa is a member of the Ranunculaceae
or buttercup family. In the garden, there is no comparison between love-in-a-mist
and Nigella sativa, both annuals, but the latter is quite plain in comparison.
Though the foliage is similar, the pale blue flower is smaller than
the ornamental variety and less showy. The seed pod also is much smaller
and less striking. There is nothing about the flower or pod to catch
the eye and, in fact, it looks a bit weedy. It is definitely a plant
to be grown for the seeds, not the appearance. Seeds can be sown outdoors
in spring during cool weather. Like love-in-a-mist, it does not like
to be transplanted. It grows about two feet tall and is native to southwest
Asia and the Mediterranean but is cultivated in India, Asia, Egypt,
and the Middle East.
Culinarily, Nigella sativa is known by a number of other names:
black cumin, fennel flower, black caraway, nutmeg flower, wild onion
seed, Roman coriander, kalonji, and charnushka among them. (The only
source that used "charnushka" said "black cumin"
is a misnomer, as that name really belongs to an entirely different
spice, but I could find no information about what that different spice
might be. And "black cumin" is the translation from the
Indian name for the spice. Of course, wild onion seed is also a misnomer
as are, for that matter, most of the other common names it is known
Descriptions of its aroma and flavor differed from source to source.
The one I find most accurate is a slightly smoky aroma with a slight
bitter and pepper taste. The seeds are often dry roasted or fried to
bring out their flavor before using. They are used in the cooking of
India, the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Egypt), Armenia, Greece,
and France. They are used in Slavic sausages, New York City Jewish rye
bread, and a number of spice mixtures including the Bengali "panch
phoron" spice blend, as well as some curries, pickles, and chutneys.
(Panch phoron is a Bengal classic mixture of five spices: cumin, black
cumin, mustard, fenugreek, and fennel seeds. It is rarely ground, though
should either be toasted or fried in oil before using in vegetable dishes
Nigella sativa is used in Indian medicine to treat flatulence,
indigestion, bowel disorders, and intestinal worms. It is also used
as a stimulant, used to induce sweat, and used to increase lactation.
In the Middle East, it is used for asthma and eczema. In Malaya, it
is used for treatment of cancer; in a recent study in South Carolina
an extract from the plant did show some action against cancer-causing
These are its uses today, but its history is long—it’s
been in use medicinally for 2000 years. Plants have been found in the
Giza pyramid and in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Black cumin was mentioned
in the Bible (Isaiah 28:25) as being a commonly grown crop.
The Prophet Muhammad encouraged its use for all diseases. Dioscorides,
the Greek physician from the first century AD, recommended it for many
conditions. Less anciently, it was also once used to restore a lost
sense of smell by grinding it and adding it to sweet powders to sniff.
One source warns that two of the components of the seed, melanthin and
niogelline, are harmful in large doses, so the seed should not be eaten
in large quantities. Sprinkle the seeds in clothing to repel insects.
A recipe using nigella seeds - Naan Bread